A safer place to be: Findings from our survey of health-based places of safety for people detained under section 136 of the Mental Health Act
A mental health crisis can happen to anyone, at any time in someone’s life, and in any place. Experiencing a crisis might mean that there is an immediate risk of the person harming themselves, or they might be having a panic attack, a psychotic episode, or severe anxiety. A mental health crisis is an emergency and help is needed urgently.
Depending on the circumstances, different services are responsible for providing help to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. This could include specialist services, such as crisis resolution home treatment teams, crisis houses, helplines and liaison psychiatry services. If the police find someone in a public place who they believe is in crisis, and that there is an immediate risk they may harm themselves or another person, they can use section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA) to detain them and take them to a ‘place of safety’ , where a mental health assessment will be carried out within 72 hours.
A place of safety can be anywhere, but it is most commonly a designated room or suite of rooms in a mental health inpatient service, the emergency department of an acute hospital, or a police station. The MHA Code of Practice states that the preferred option is a health-based place of safety where mental health services are provided.
Police stations should only be used in exceptional circumstances. The reason for detaining someone under section 136 is to enable quick access to mental health care, not because a criminal offence has been committed. While we have heard from many individuals who have told us that the police were very kind and compassionate, police stations can be stressful places, and healthcare can be more difficult to access than in a health-based location. In 2011/12 and 2012/13, people with mental health problems accounted for half of all deaths in or following police custody (seven out of 15 deaths in both years), and over a third in 2013/14 (four out of 11). Of these 18 deaths, five people had been detained under the MHA.3
Despite guidance from the MHA Code of Practice and elsewhere, evidence shows that the use of police stations across the country is far from uncommon; though this is variable. In some areas, difficulty in accessing health-based alternatives is one of the likely reasons for relying on police stations as a place of safety.