Mentally ill children locked in police cells due to hospital bed shortage

© Mark Makela
Three mentally ill children a week are locked up in police cells in Britain due to a lack of hospital beds amid government cuts to mental health services, new figures show.

Over the past year, 161 under-18s with mental health issues were placed in cells around England and Wales because of the NHS bed shortage crisis, according to National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) figures. 

Cases were more frequent in Devon, Sussex and Cornwall, where 25 mentally ill children were placed in cells in each of the counties.

Some 947 children were sectioned under the Mental Health Act by police in the past year. Over 15 percent were held in custody while the rest were sent to a “health-based place of safety.”

The figures prompted calls for more mental health facilities in hospitals, with charities recognizing that police station cells were inappropriate places to hold the mentally ill.

In 2014, Home Secretary Theresa May promised to tackle the crisis after a mentally ill 16-year-old girl was held a cell in a Torquay police station for two days.

Since then, Devon and Cornwall police introduced new measures to prevent similar cases from occurring again, but this week the force’s assistant chief constable Paul Netherton tweeted: “Yet again MH patients being kept in police cells as no beds available in D&C.

He said it is “unacceptable” that the National Health Service (NHS) is providing nurses to help but there are “still no places.”

The Metropolitan Police said officers have been forced to lock “vulnerable” children in London police station cells because health trusts have not had the facilities to accommodate them.

The force’s commander and senior mental health officer Christine Jones told the Times that police cells are “not the place” for anyone who is mentally ill.

Mental health charity Turning Point chief executive Lord Adebowale told the Times: “We still have a system that is failing people because of lack of partnership working between the police and NHS. We clearly need more health-based places of safety.

Since 2011, more than 2,000 psychiatric beds have been closed across England. The crisis has forced some patients to travel hundreds of miles to seek medical attention.

Chief executive of mental health charity Sane Marjorie Wallace told the BBC: “People in distress and in need of continuing care are given no alternative and often left neglected, either in unsuitable wards, at home or in unsupported housing.”