Letter: How the system fails the mentally ill on the streets

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The Independent Online
EMER Gillespie is right to be concerned about those who are obviously disturbed on the streets. However, she does not seem to realise the obligations of the police, set out in section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. They are empowered to take to a place of safety (usually a hospital) anyone who appears to be 'in immediate need of care and attention' whom they encounter 'in a place to which the public has access'. Unfortunately many constables are not aware of these powers or are reluctant to use them.

The unenthusiastic response she describes is sadly not uncommon. In police culture apprehending the mentally ill is a fairly low-status activity. To be fair, it tends to be very time-consuming. They will often have to wait at the place of safety for a psychiatrist and a social worker to complete the assessment. They may subsequently have to escort the patient to another hospital. However, the law is the law and they are its agents.

One should therefore never be fobbed off with the nihilistic complaint that 'they'll only be back out in a couple of days'. This feeble abdication of responsibility neither gives the public the protection to which it has a right, nor obtains the care to which the mentally ill have a right.

Dr Philip Timms

Senior Lecturer in

Community Psychiatry

Guy's & St Thomas's UMDS

London SE1