Mental health: patients and service in crisis

BMJ 2017; 356 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j1141 (Published 13 March 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;356:j1141
  1. Jacqui Wise, freelance journalist, London, UK
  1. jacquiyoung1{at}gmail.com

Jacqui Wise examines why the numbers of people being detained under the Mental Health Act are increasing and how they are treated

The police broke down Emma McAllister’s front door, and she was later handcuffed in front of her neighbours, taken away in the back of a police van, and placed in a cell. She has never been violent or threatened anyone. But she does have a mental illness.

“When you are unwell being held in a police cell is very frightening and unhelpful. I was treated like a criminal and it can add to your feelings of paranoia,” she told The BMJ.

Emma, a professional with a steady job, has had mental health problems for 30 years including an eating disorder, depression, and psychotic episodes. The occasion she described came after she went to her general practitioner for help. However, according to Emma her GP couldn’t get hold of anyone in the crisis mental health team and as she was concerned for Emma’s safety she felt she had no option but to call the police.

“When I am well I am much more frightened about becoming unwell again,” says Emma. “I am worried about contacting anyone for help as I am frightened of the police coming to my home and taking me to a cell again.”

Emma’s experience is far from unique. In England the use of section 136 of the Mental Health Act, which allows police officers to remove someone they think is mentally disordered and “in immediate need of care or control” from a public place to a place of safety, increased by 18% last year to 22 965 cases. Data from NHS Digital show that there has been a more than fourfold increase in use of powers to detain people under section 136 over the past …

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