Lancashire’s most senior police officer said the county is in a mental health “crisis” – with his officers bearing the brunt of it.
Chief Constable Andy Rhodes said the number of patients being seen by officers instead of criminals has been increasing for years – and said the number of people being sectioned could soon double.
He said: “If police officers are sent to incidents involving mental health, we have cases with very limited options and invariably end up in A&E.
“We anticipate soon that there will be a doubling of Section 136s [Section 136 of the Mental Health Act allows officers to detain those in need of “care or control] and it is totally unacceptable.
“It is not something happening everywhere in the country either.
“There are more and more police officers standing next to patients beds who have been taken in under Section 136, and this can be over a number of days.
“It is not good for the patient’s mental health to have these officers next to them constantly. They need the support of health professionals.”
In a frank and honest interview with the Post, Ch Con Rhodes said the force is “picking up the pieces of a system that is falling apart”, with hospital emergency departments also “struggling”.
He said 20,000 out 70,000 police response hours in the county each month are now dealing with mental health issues.
“There are massive cuts being made to services across Lancashire and it is escalating into a crisis with the system simply not coping,” he said.
“Sadly there is not a night or day that goes by where we aren’t sent out to someone intent on self-harm, and when this happens it takes precedence over anything else.
“So quite often we are unable to deal with shoplifters or respond to people reporting crime when these incidents happen.
“I joined the police force in 1991 and there was an element of dealing with mental health then, but we were able to deal with pub fights, car thefts and shoplifting for example.
“It is now dominating police time and resources throughout the country.
“We need to drastically rethink the services across the county. If you look at Northumberland, for example, they are doing really well and what they are doing should be copied. They have set up a specific helpline that is helping people with mental health issues.
“They have also invested heavily in mental health crisis teams who come out and support people 24/7 in their own homes or in public spaces, and they are specifically trained to deal with it.
“We need more mental health beds in hospitals. A lot of people are having to be sent outside of Lancashire because there are none available. Referring back to Northumberland, when our people visited recently they had 68 beds available for mental health patients. Lancashire usually has none.
“This crisis is fixable and there should be no excuses as other counties are doing it far better and it needs to be done very quickly.”
Ch Con Rhodes also opened up about the impact on officers dealing with traumatic incidents.
“Police officers are one of the highest work forces to experience trauma,” he said.
“They rate as highly as A&E staff, the military, and foreign aid workers.
“When officers repeatedly attend traumatic incidents, it can badly affect them when it’s all you are doing 24/7 it will inevitably take its toll.
“I am immensely proud of the work my officers do every day and night and they should be highly commended.
“To be 100 per cent clear, I am not simply complaining about the additional demand.
“The point is also about the right resource being there to support vulnerable people in their hour of need.”
Lancashire Care, which is responsible for mental health care across the county, said: “We have been experiencing consistently high demand in our mental health service and our number one priority is to ensure that our service users receive the right care at the right time and the most appropriate support for their needs.
“For some people this may mean an admission to a bed, however we are also able to support people outside of hospital within our enhanced community services.
“There has been a steady increase in the number of people detained under S136 by the police in Lancashire since January 2018, and we recognise the additional demand that this has put on police resources as well mental health services.
“We will continue our close working relationship with the police to ensure that services in Lancashire are as responsive as possible to meet the mental health needs of our communities.”
The number of attacks on mental health staff by patients has trebled in the past years, figures released under the Freedom of Information Act showed.
The figure has risen year-on-year from 548 in 2011 to 1,854 last year, while patient-on-patient attacks have also tripled.
Tens of thousands of pounds have been paid out in compensation as a result.
A number of assaults with weapons such as cutlery and furniture have also been recorded.
And there were 16 suspected arson attacks at mental health units across Lancashire in 2017.
Matthew Joyes, associate director of safety at Lancashire Care, said: “The level of violence on mental health wards has increased nationally and this is linked to an increasing number of people in inpatient services who are very ill and in distress.
“A high level of incidents being reported suggests a good safety culture. All trust employees are encouraged to report all violent incidents so we can understand risk and improve safety.”
Mr Joyes said work was being done to “understand” people’s “trigger points”, with reducing attacking a priority.
He added: “Our focus has included working with staff and patients to improve how we reduce violence and how we improve our training programmes.
“We also work closely with the police to take action against those causing violence on our wards where this is not related to a patient’s clinical presentation.”