Police officers now 'first line of response' for mental health incidents

New Scottish Police Federation chair says officers are 'spending incredible amounts of time filling in for other services'.

Police Scotland officers now ‘first line of response’ for mental health incidents, figures show STV News

Police officers have become the “first line of response” for mental health incidents, according to new statistics released on Tuesday.

The force dealt with 23,259 “mental health related” incidents last year – a near doubling from just 12,775 in 2017 – amid ongoing strain on NHS and ambulance services.

But while mental health call-outs have soared, the actual number of crimes recorded as being “mental health related” was just 656 last year – sparking warnings of “systemic failures in other public and emergency services” that are all being “pushed beyond breaking point”.

Liam McArthur, the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesperson, told 1919 magazine: “The police have become the first line of response for dealing with soaring numbers of mental health incidents.

“These complex cases take up huge amounts of time and resources amongst a patchwork of underfunded mental health services.

“I applaud the compassion officers show to people in distress day-in day-out, but this should not be left to them.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats have consistently argued for including co-locating mental health professionals alongside the police to help to tackle these complex cases.

“Ultimately however, it will require a dramatic overhaul of Scotland’s mental health services to ensure that people are supported and treated before they find themselves in a crisis.”

McArthur called for an expansion of the mental health workforce, faster access to talking therapies at GP practices, and 24/7 access to crisis care.

Latest Public Health Scotland figures show that 81.1% of those referred for psychological therapies started their treatment within 18 weeks in the three months to the end of December – meaning almost one in five waited longer.

For young people referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), only 70.1% were seen within 18 weeks of referral.

Both are below the Scottish Government’s target of 90% beginning treatment within the timeframe.
Outgoing chief constable Sir Iain Livingstone previously warned that policing is in an “unsustainable” position as the force is often absorbing “the impact of wider public sector financial challenges”.

In a draft Joint Strategy for Policing 2023, which was co-authored by Scottish Police Authority chief executive Lynn Brown, Livingstone said officers were regularly “taking responsibility in situations where the police service is not the most appropriate service to respond”.

The engagement report highlighted a rise in calls to support “those in crisis due to vulnerability or mental ill health” and said it was detracting “from the ability to intervene at the critical end of risk and harm”.

David Threadgold, chair of the Scottish Police Federation, said: “We are spending incredible amounts of time filling in for other services, particularly in relation to mental health and medical cases. The ambulance service simply could not cope without the police service, and the social work department is the same.”

Conservative shadow justice secretary Jamie Greene said the new figures from Police Scotland also “reaffirm how overstretched our hardworking police officers are” and insisted dealing with the high-volume of mental-health related incidents “simply isn’t sustainable”.

He said: “Police officer numbers are already at their lowest level since 2008 on the SNP’s watch and despite endless sidestepping comparisons with other forces, the justice secretary needs to start answering questions over the sustainability of the current policing model.

“The sharp increase in mental health callouts in recent years points to systemic failures in other public and emergency services, who are all pushed beyond breaking point.

“Across the board, SNP ministers must step up and accept that status quo cannot continue lest we lose more hardworking experienced officers from the force at a time when we need them most.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government recognises there are significant pressures facing mental health services and the impact that this has on other services including policing.

“We are working with partners across the health and justice sectors to address these issues and will continue to invest in wellbeing and prevention alongside early intervention and improving mental health services.

“Initiatives such as the Enhanced Mental Health Pathway and the Distress Brief Intervention Programme allows police officers and staff the ability to support individuals in distress and direct them to the support they require.

“Despite UK Government austerity, and in recognition of the crucial role Police Scotland officers and staff play keeping our communities safe, the service will receive additional resource funding of £80m in 2023/24, a 6.3% increase compared to 2022/23.”

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