London Assembly debates best way to respond to mental health emergencies

Leading charity worried about continuing “gap” in Met Police’s understanding of mental health issues, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

City Hall (credit GLA)
City Hall (credit GLA)

“Grave concerns” have been raised at City Hall over the roll-out of new police guidance in London which has changed the way officers respond to calls related to mental health.

Last November the Met Police switched to the ‘Right Care, Right Person’ (RCRP) model, which aims to ensure the most appropriate agency deals with health-related calls, instead of the police being the default first responder.

The London Assembly’s police and crime committee was told on Wednesday (7th) by a Met commander that RCRP’s introduction has already saved “tens of thousands of hours” of officers’ time, and has been “one of the best successes” of the capital’s recent policing.

But representatives from mental health organisations warned that while they agreed with the principles of the new guidance, there were “profound” issues with how it has been implemented in London.

Under RCRP, originally developed by Humberside Police, officers continue to respond to calls where there is a real and immediate risk to life or of serious harm – either to the person themselves or to people around them. In other circumstances however, the police now look to ensure that support is provided by the NHS and mental health services.

Met commander for public protection Kevin Southworth said that before RCRP, mental health calls were putting “a huge strain on our frontline”, as police were resorting to arresting people under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act as many as 700 times per month.

“All too often, our officers were finding themselves at the nearest emergency department, where because of the law in place, [they] would need to stay with the individual detained for sometimes as much as 12-14 hours at a time,” Southworth said.

He added that since the roll-out of RCRP, “those numbers have come down massively, so in the last three months, we’ve been averaging less than 400 s136 detentions by Met Police officers”.

This has freed up “tens of thousands of hours of PC time”, the commander said.

But Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive of the charity Mind, questioned how the reduction in s136 arrests had been achieved.

“It is striking that we go from 700 [arrests per month] to 400 in such a short period of time,” she said. “I do wonder where those additional 300 people have gone, because those needs don’t disappear overnight, and I guess that is the deep and profound concern that we have.”

She told the committee that her organisation was also worried about a continuing “gap” in the police’s understanding of mental health issues.

“The police won’t necessarily know what is a mental health issue or not, until they get there and are able to assess the situation,” said Dr Hughes.

“I think it’s difficult in relation to assessing whether things are life and death – so, if somebody’s at risk of suicide. Again, you won’t know the risk until the person’s in front of you.

“There’s a bit of a gap between what we think the police should understand in relation to mental health, and what is readily available for police officers on the ground. That gap still exists, that gap is not going to be addressed by RCRP.

“Whilst we agree with the principles, there are some grave concerns we have about the rollout and the unintended consequences of this important policy.”

Dr Lade Smith, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that her organisation was also supportive of RCRP’s principles while believing there have been issues with its implementation.

She said mental health services across the country, but particularly in London, are in a “parlous” state.

“We have had chronic under-resourcing, we have terrible work-force shortages, and since the pandemic, as everyone knows, there’s been a 20% increase in need and demand. And that’s across the board – particularly in children and young people,” Dr Smith said.

She later told the meeting that London has among the highest rates of mental illness, “not simply in the country, but in the world”.

She added: “In places like South London, the rates of psychotic illnesses for example are four times higher than they are anywhere else in the world, except for Trinidad.”

Southworth assured assembly members that the Met is not “backing away from mental health […] that’s far from the truth. It’s still a massive area of demand and delivery for us, and a really important, compassionate part of what we do for our public.”

Martin Machray, an executive director for NHS England, stressed to the committee that RCRP was not only intended to help improve the response to mental health calls, but for a wider range of health and social care situations where the police are not always best placed to assist.

If you’re struggling and need to talk, the Samaritans operate a free helpline open 24/7 on 116 123. Alternatively, you can email [email protected] or visit their site to find your local branch.