Mental Health patients detained in police cells

CONCERNS have been raised about the ongoing practice of detaining individuals with mental health problems in police cells at Aberystwyth police station.

Speaking to Aberystwyth Student Media in an interview last month, Mark Williams, MP for Ceredigion, expressed his disappointment at the events taking place at the station. On a recent visit to the station, Mr Williams asked staff what the most important issue for them at the moment was, and was shocked when they told him about what they described as the “totally inappropriate situation, where we have to use cells in Aberystwyth police station to detain people with mental health problems”.

He continued:

“People in a position where they’re going through a psychotic experience are being locked up in an police cell in Aberystwyth overnight, and then shunted down to Carmarthen. This is totally inappropriate.” The current situation has largely arisen due to the closure of the Afallon ward at Bronglais Hospital back in July 2012, when the Hywel Dda health board made the decision to temporarily close the ward due to there being “not enough qualified staff to provide appropriate and safe care for patients on that ward.”

Services were then moved to the Glangwili General Hospital in Carmarthen, almost fifty miles away – a round trip of nearly three hours. The Afallon ward is now currently being used as office space. An individual can be detained for up to 72 hours, under section 136 of the 1986 Mental Health Act, if an officer believes that someone is ‘suffering from a mental disorder in a public place, and that person is in immediate need of care or control’.

Credit - Tomos Nolan

Tomos Nolan

It provides the officer with the authority to take the person to a “place of safety”, so that his or her immediate mental health needs can be properly assessed. A 2013report covering England and Wales showed that police custody is regularly being used as a place of safety. For example, in 2011/12, more than 9,000 people were detained in police custody under section 136, while 16,035 were taken to a hospital. The percentage of those detained under section 136 being placed in custody varied drastically, between 6% and 76%, across police forces.

In a statement, a Dyfed-Powys Police spokesperson said:

“Annual analysis of section 136 data over the past three years indicates that the total number detained under section 136, and those detained in police detention, has decreased during 2013-14 when compared with the previous two years. The total number and proportion of persons detained in hospital as a place of safety has increased. We are working closely with partner agencies across Dyfed and Powys, including local health boards and third sector organisations, to develop a range of options including mental health triage to support people experiencing mental ill-health and provide the most appropriate place of safety. It is important that a person is detained in the most appropriate place of safety and, whilst seeking to minimise the use of police cells, there are occasions ‘on an exceptional basis’ where police detention is the most appropriate place of safety; for example where the detained person is intoxicated or is violent.”

The lack of facilities across the town has raised concern among staff, students and locals, with Mark Williams pointing out that having the appropriate facilities “really does matter when you see how much our population here shoots up by one-third when the student community are here”. He also told us that he raised the issue, unsuccessfully, with the former chief executive of the Hywel Dda health board, who told him that “I’ll have a chat with the chief constable of Dfyed-Powys police to see if he can get extra training for the police officers.”

Students’ Union Welfare Officer Will Atkinson stated that:

“Due to the systemic dismantling of local mental health services over a number of years now, members of the public experiencing a mental health crisis have been either taken south to Carmarthen (recently to Llanelli) sometimes in taxis, to find a mental health ward bed. There have been times when even these beds aren’t available and police cells have been used instead. In our view this is totally unacceptable. Young people are at a greater risk of serious mental health problems. The majority of students are aged between 18 and 35 and according to prominent research undertaken by the Mental Health Foundation, suicide remains the “most common cause of death in men under the age of 35”. We know that Aber students are a significant proportion of the local population and we feel that Mental Health provision must be at the forefront of the preservation and development of Bronglais services. Quite simply, the lives of current and future students depend on this.”

In a 2007 report, The Mental Health Foundation pointed to statistics from the Office for National Statistics, which found that in any one year 1 in 4 British adults experience at least one mental disorder, and 1 in 6 experiences this at any given time. Similarly, it was estimated that approximately 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem.