Today is the day! After months of talking and writing about it, my report has finally launched. Please do read and share it – I hope it can add to the current discussions about how the criminal justice system responds to people affected by mental illness.
I’m incredibly grateful to all the organisations that let me come and visit them for the project and all the passionate people I’ve met along the way. I also cannot thank the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust enough for giving me the opportunity to do this project. I really would encourage everyone to check out their website and consider applying.
Finally, huge thanks to my brilliant colleagues at Rethink Mental Illness, who kindly hosted a guest blog from me on their website to promote the report – I’ve posted the text below.
Paula from our policy team looks at what we can learn about mental health and criminal justice from the USA and Canada…
In the past few weeks we’ve seen a number of worrying reports about the state of mental health care in this country. An article this week in The Sunday Telegraph highlighted serious failures in care, while the former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists recently described the system as a ‘car crash’.
Nowhere are those problems more evident than in the ever increasing number of people being detained under the Mental Health Act. Too many people are reaching crisis point because the support they need isn’t available in their local community.
Unfortunately, that often means people with mental illness end up in the criminal justice system. A third of people held under the Mental Health Act are brought to police cells, because there is no health-based ‘place of safety’ available in their local community. The police and other emergency services often have to respond to crisis situations with little support from mental health services.
Not only does this result in people being inappropriately held in police cells, it can also lead to dangerous use of restraint, and people in the criminal justice system often miss out on the support they need for their mental health.
What really struck me is that no one part of the system can solve this issue alone, and different agencies have to work together to address these problems.
So what can be done to tackle this issue? That’s a question that is being grappled with in many other parts of the world. Last year I was lucky enough to be awarded a travel grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, to travel to the USA and Canada and learn how they are dealing with these problems. I visited police forces, emergency departments, courts and mental health agencies to see what was working well and what we could learn from it.
What really struck me is that no one part of the system can solve this issue alone, and different agencies have to work together to address these problems. For example, crisis intervention team police officers in Memphis are trained by local mental health professionals and social workers, so they can understand how to get people in crisis support as quickly as possible. Case managers in New York courts work across local housing, welfare and mental health services to get people the personalised care they need. In Toronto, crisis houses offer community alternatives to hospital or jail for people with mental illness who end up in the criminal justice system. You can read more about what I learned here.
In a time of cuts and pressures on services, it is easy for different organisations to focus on their own roles and lose sight of how they could work with others to maximise their impact. But this is one issue on which we really can’t afford to have tunnel vision – the cost is too great for people with mental illness who are in the criminal justice system.
Thankfully, in the UK we have recently seen some genuine progress on this issue. In February, the Government published the Crisis Care Concordat, which sets out plans to improve care for people in crisis. That includes supporting people to help them avoid reaching crisis point in the first place, offering quality treatment to people who are in crisis, and helping them to recover and stay well afterwards.
The Government has also extended its liaison and diversion scheme, which aims to get the right treatment as quickly as possible to people who enter the justice system with mental health problems.
However we still have a long way to go, and for too long this issue has been marked as ‘too difficult’ to tackle. Now we need the Government, NHS, police and local authorities to work together to bring about real change in crisis care.
You can download a copy of the report here and join the discussion on Twitter using #mhjustice.
Rethink Mental Illness also provides practical advice and information around mental health and the criminal justice system. If you have any queries, please visit our criminal justice pagesfrom the Advice and Information Service, or call 0300 5000 927.