Policeman tweets about 16 year old kept in cell because of lack of NHS beds

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 02 December 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7408
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. 1London

The case of a teenage girl with mental health problems who was kept in a police cell for almost two days has again highlighted the strain on mental health services in England.

The 16 year old girl was found a hospital bed only after a policeman spoke out on Twitter, saying it was “unacceptable” that she was being held in police custody because apparently no beds were available.

Paul Netherton, assistant chief constable at Devon and Cornwall Police, tweeted about the case, saying, “Custody on a Fri & Sat night is no place for a child suffering mental health issues,” and, “This can’t be right!”

The girl had been arrested at Torbay Hospital after a breach of the peace on the night of Thursday 27 November, and on Friday lunchtime she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. NHS England said it had found a place “appropriate for her care” on Saturday evening, after the policeman took to social media.

The case was condemned by mental health charities. Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said, “This is a terrible and shameful situation. Being in mental health crisis can be terrifying and life threatening, and people need urgent care from mental health services. A police cell is a completely inappropriate place to put someone who is so unwell, and everyone agrees that children with mental health problems should never be put in a police cell.”

He continued, “This whole episode shows how thinly spread NHS mental health services are. Historical underfunding of mental health services compounded by cuts over three consecutive years has left services in disarray, and we desperately need to see investment.”

Guidelines say that people detained by the police under section 136 of the Mental Health Act should be taken immediately to a safe place where they can undergo mental health assessment. This place should be a health based place of safety located in a mental health hospital or an emergency department at a general hospital. Police cells should be used only in “exceptional circumstances.”

In October this year the Care Quality Commission called for urgent action to improve access to health based places of safety, as it said too many were turning people away because they are already full or were refusing to help people who were intoxicated or exhibiting disturbed behaviour.1

Figures from the Care Quality Commission for 2012-13 showed that 21 814 assessments of adults or children took place under section 136, of which 7761 involved the use of a police cell. Figures from the Association of Chief Police Officers estimated that in 2012-13 580 people aged under 18 years were detained under section 136, of whom an estimated 45% were taken into police custody. The CQC said that the number of people detained or treated under the Mental Health Act in England has risen by 12% in the past five years.2

Andrew Hill-Smith, a member of the faculty of child and adolescent psychiatry of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said, “It is wholly inappropriate and totally shocking that a 16 year old was held in a police cell for almost 48 hours. It highlights the fact that there is still a substantial problem in the system.” The college has launched a manifesto, Making Parity a Reality, which called on MPs to eliminate the use of police cells as places of safety for children by 2016 and by 2020 for these to be used only in exceptional circumstances for adults.3 The Royal College of Nursing warned last week that staff cuts and bed shortages were leaving mental health services under unprecedented strain. And a BBC investigation last month found that seven people had taken their own lives in England since 2013 while waiting for beds.

A manifesto drawn up by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health last month called on the next UK government to place greater value on children. It said that demand was increasing for already stretched mental health services for children and teenagers.4

● On 2 December Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, announced an extra £150m (€190m; $235m) to treat children with eating disorders. In 2012-13 there were 2560 admissions to hospital for eating disorders in England, a rise of 8% on the previous year.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7408


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