Ambulance call outs in London responding to people suffering mental health crises have risen by nine percent in one year, as people needing specialised help are left with no choice but to call the Police.

London Ambulance Service responded to 13,850 emergency calls for psychiatric/abnormal behaviour or suicide attempts in the financial year 2016-17, a Freedom of Information Request revealed. That’s an average of 38 calls a day, a substantial 8.8 percentage increase from the previous year.

Latest figures show how emergency services are often left to deal with mental health crisis cases, rather than dedicated professionals.

NHS feeling the pressure

Stephen Moore, Information Governance Manager from the London Ambulance Service NHS Trust, said: “Figures generally show a rising trend, but this is the case for all incidents.”

According to the Royal College of Physicians, demand for NHS services increases by 4 percent every year, but NHS funding will increase by only 0.2 per cent per year until 2020. At the same time, social care cuts are piling pressure on NHS services.

This is forcing police to be at the front line for mental health services, as emergency ambulances categorise calls according to severity. Mental health is very rarely categorised as ‘Red 1’; the most severe.

Mother's anguish at failing services

Katherine Sumner’s 10-year-old daughter Ella McDevitt has had to rely on emergency services multiple times due to violent outbursts she’s had towards herself and others over the last 15 months.

“In our case, social care and CAMHS are actively expecting the police to deal with mental health crises,” Katherine said. “Last weekend an emergency ambulance service put me on hold for five to ten minutes then said it was a matter for the police,” she added.

Another FOI found that the number of referrals made to Sandwell Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) has decreased over the last year, but CAMHS, according to Katherine, failed Ella who has suspected Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“She tells me she hears voices, believes everyone in the world is a computer programme and has tried to kill herself more than once.

“Social care say my only choice is to keep calling the police and taking her to general hospital but the last visit she refused to eat or drink for 50 hours in protest at being there. She is being passed between mental health/social care with no-one accepting any responsibility and leaving the police to deal with the inevitable crises,” Katherine added.

10-year old arrested

Approximately half of all deaths in or following police custody involve detainees with some form of mental health problem, according to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

The Met police can detain up to 400 people experiencing a mental health crisis in a public place, or 450 seeking urgent crisis care, under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act.

They said: “Based on current trends the need for section 136 is set to double in the next 10 years. Over three-quarters of such detentions occur out of hours, yet the majority of mental health based places of safety do not have dedicated staffing 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Ella was arrested by police under S136 on Friday, May 26.

Katherine said: “It can be very traumatising for a child in an MH crisis to be faced with police officers.”

Mental health underfunded with police plugging the gaps

Alison Cobb, Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer at Mind, said prevention is the best way to protect people and the economy: “Mental health has historically been underfunded. The increasing demand for ambulance services is a symptom of a mental health system in need of significant investment in services.

“If people do end up in crisis, we need to make sure they receive urgent help. With ever-increasing pressure on emergency departments, carrying out a commitment to including psychiatric expertise in every hospital delivering acute care is crucial,” she added.

“The police should not be plugging the gaps created by failings in health services. People with mental health problems should get appropriate help and support as early as possible to prevent them becoming so unwell that they end up in crisis.”

Other figures show that mental health ambulance call outs for males have risen the most at 9 percent, whereas for females it rose by 7 percent. The average ambulance response time for mental health issues in 2016-17 was 47 minutes; which was one minute quicker than the previous year.

However, how long people had to wait for an ambulance while experiencing a psychotic episode varied between eight hours and three minutes.

In Ella’s case, she has had to wait up to six hours for an emergency ambulance vehicle while experiencing an episode.

Cuts across the health and emergency sector are not reflecting the ever growing demand for crisis care, leaving people who need directed care in the hands of services who are already stretched beyond their means to cope.