I first wrote this article several years ago, when the experiences of suffering with mental health issues were still very fresh in my mind. As death in police custody is back in the news and it seems as though nothing has changed, I thought it would be appropriate to re-publish this here on my blog.
I am less angry now than I was when I wrote this and my own depression is under control, but the fact remains that detention in a police cell is not the right way to handle a mental health patient. The problem is, though, what could be the alternative? Having said that, if you know someone who is depressed and you think they might harm themselves, then don’t be put off calling the police, if you really think that it is necessary. After all, if I hadn’t been detained under section 136, I might not have been here today writing this post.
Section 136 of the Mental Health Act
Under the provisions of the Mental Health Act (Section 136), the police have the power to remove a person from a public place to a place of safety where they may be detained for up to 72 hours. This is invariably a police cell.
The process of a section 136 detention is both frightening and demeaning and can only add to the mental distress of anyone of anyone unfortunate to be put through it.
That there is a need to have a process enabling the removal of someone from harm’s way who may be considering self-harm or even suicide is beyond question, but the manner in which they are currently detained is at best inappropriate and at worst detrimental to their wellbeing and safety.
“Approximately half of all deaths in or following police custody involve detainees with some form of mental health problem.”
Individual police officers cannot be blamed for the system, they are not mental health care professionals, and their primary duty of care in these circumstances is to ensure that a person neither harms themselves, nor anyone else. The issue is; should someone who is clearly suffering from a mental disorder be detained in a police cell in the first place?
If a person is detained under Section 136 then they are processed by the police very much as if they have been arrested for a crime.
When an individual, who appears to be contemplating suicide or self-harm, is reported by a member of the public, or even if that individual contacts emergency services of their own accord, then both the police and the ambulance service are likely to attend.
Should the police officer in attendance decide removal to a place of safety is required, he or she will explain this to the person, very much like having your rights read during a criminal arrest, they then may be handcuffed, placed in the back of a police car and driven to the nearest police station.
On arrival at the police station a section 136 detainee is processed much the same way as someone under arrest, for say, a violent disorder. They are booked in at the custody desk, all personal belongings removed along with belts, watches, phones and shoes and, in some cases, a strip search will be conducted as well.
They will then be locked in a cell, for up to 72 hours (Three days), until they can be assessed by the relevant mental health practitioners.
Most criminals must be charged or released within 24 hours.
Nowhere to Turn
Even though the police themselves recognise that a police cell is not the place to hold someone suffering from mental illness, during 2011-12, 9,000 individuals were detained in police custody under section 136, so this is not a small problem.
But what is the alternative? The resources are simply not available to someone in this type of situation and it is in their own interests that they are not left on their own.
Going to A&E means a long wait at best and the staff are there to deal with medical emergencies, not psychological ones. You can call the Samaritans; they can be very helpful and kind, but they can’t put you in a safe place and you have to go through the ‘proper’ channels to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
But there is no doubt that a police cell is not the answer. It criminalises an illness and it only serves to make a bad situation worse.
Annette Carter, 45, from Norfolk was a police officer who was later detained as a mental health patient under a 136 order.
"In 2008 I was very unwell and I didn't know what I was doing. But the only crime I committed was having a mental illness. I have emotionally unstable borderline personality disorder and reacted extremely badly to being detained.”
Read more: BBC News
This case study, from a BBC news article, highlights the plight of those suffering from mental illnesses who are detained under section 136.
An ex-police officer who, in her own words, highlights that the police are not the people to be providing a place if safety:
"When I was a police officer I admit I was a bit prejudiced towards people with mental health problems.
"I guess I thought they were putting it on, or I put their behaviour down to drugs or drink. I am ashamed to say it took for me to become unwell to realise that mental health is a serious problem in its own right.”
What is Being Sectioned?
You can be admitted to a psychiatric hospital in two ways; voluntarily, which is known as informal, or under section, known as detained.
In a normal hospital admission, you are free to leave if you wish, but if you are sectioned, then you are detained, even if it’s against your own will, for a period of time specified by mental health practitioners in accordance with the mental health act.
Sometimes the courts will detain a person in hospital; this is known as a criminal section, but by far the majority of people are detained under a Civil Section.
To be sectioned, two doctors must agree that a person needs to be in hospital along with an application for detention by an AMHP (Approved Mental Health Practitioner).
In the case of a Section 136 detention, a police officer can take the decision to detain a person for up to 72 hours in a place of safety; often a police cell.
Section 2 of the Mental Health Act
Section 2 allows for a patient to be detained for up to 28 days for assessment and medical treatment if they are suffering from a mental disorder. This type of section cannot normally be extended, but a patient can be assessed for a Section 3 detention if a longer stay in hospital is deemed to be necessary.
Section 3 of the Mental Health Act
Under section 3 a patient may be detained for up to six months for medical treatment. The section can be renewed and extended, initially every six months, and subsequently by a year at a time.
Section 4 of the Mental Health Act
In some circumstances, a patient may be detained with only one medical recommendation. This is covered by Section4 of Mental Health Act. If it is felt that a patient meets the criteria for a section but it is felt that there is no time to wait for second opinions, a patient may be detained for a period of 72 hours during which the second medical opinion must be obtained.
Section 135 of the Mental Health Act
Under section 135, an AMHP can apply for a warrant to enter your home if a person is living alone and not caring for themselves or if they are living with someone else but not being cared for properly.
Section 136 of the Mental Health Act
Section 136 gives the police the power to remove a person who is suffering from a mental disorder from a public place to a place of safety where they can be detained for up to 72 hours awaiting assessment.
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