Mental health triage set to expand following successful pilot

Scheme reduces demand on police and ambulance service.

A trial scheme has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of people suffering mental ill health being detained and taken to police stations in Birmingham and Solihull.
Running since January, the ‘Mental Health Triage Pilot’ has seen police officers crewed with mental health nurses and paramedics in a plain responder vehicle, seven days a week.

The team has been reacting to emergencies across the two areas for eight months, with medical staff supporting police by carrying out mental health assessments immediately at the scene. This often negates the need for officers to implement powers under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, legislation which is used to detain people who are suffering with mental health issues.

Driven by the government, the pilot came about due to concerns regarding the use of police stations as ‘places of safety’ when arrests are made under s.136. With 20 per cent of calls to the police currently mental health related, the role of the triage team is to quickly arrange appropriate medical attention on the street whilst keeping people out of custody.

Thanks to the current pilot, s.136 has been used just 176 times during 1,058 callouts since the start of 2014 and only two of those people have been taken to police stations − one of the lowest figures in the country − with the others taken instead to preferred safe health facilities. It’s also led to fewer people needing to be transported by police and ambulance staff in the first place freeing up police and health staff that would otherwise be tied up whilst awaiting assessments.

Chief Inspector Sean Russell, who has been overseeing the trial, said: “Around 20 per cent of police demand is a result of mental health issues and historically we’ve let people down because haven’t worked together with agencies like the ambulance service, hospitals and mental health providers. That’s meant we’ve wasted time by treating each incident separately, rather than trying to find more permanent solutions to reduce that long-term demand. It’s also led to far too many people ending up in police custody − essentially criminalised for being unwell.

“But this scheme has resulted in a cultural shift to a more collaborative approach; we share more information and work closely together. It’s led to marked improvements in the treatment given to members of the public who need our help, a significant cut in the use of police stations as places of safety to almost zero and a reduction in demand on the police and the healthcare system.”

Other results from the first six months of the pilot reveal that 306 people were assessed on location by the triage team who would otherwise have been sent to A&E and 228 patients who did need to go to hospital were transported in the street triage car − conveyance that would otherwise have required an ambulance.

Chief Insp. Russell added: “This is about working together and thinking more cleverly to deliver the best possible care for the patient, which is the most important thing, as well as improving the efficiency of the emergency services and healthcare providers.”

John Short, Chief Executive at Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The evidence from this pilot so far is overwhelming and we believe that this service is making a fundamental shift for the better in mental health services. This is not only in its direct support for service users to help them receive the crisis support they need more quickly, but also in breaking down barriers between health and police staff and enabling them to work more effectively together and, in particular, improving the mental health knowledge of police officers.”

Plans are now in place to extend the Birmingham and Solihull pilot scheme over the coming months, with other street triage projects soon to launch in the Black Country and Coventry. It is hoped that given the success of the pilot there will be a commitment from local commissioners for the continued funding of the service.