Here’s how we boost the nation’s mental health after the pandemic

The surge in demand for mental health services has been another consequence of the pandemic that the country faces.

The surge in demand for mental health services has been another consequence of the pandemic that the country faces.

Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists described how “as a result of COVID we are now seeing an increase, particularly in some parts of the country, in people attending emergency departments and presenting to crisis mental health services.”

Earlier this year the NHS Confederation reports how mental health services had responded well to the outbreak. Their report ‘Preparing for the Rising Tide’ explains how “mental health emergency departments were quickly set up, 24/7 crisis phone lines were implemented across the country, and services replaced face-to-face appointments with phone and video appointments.”

As Association of Police and Crime Commissioners lead for mental health, I am extremely interested in understanding how mental health demand during the pandemic has impacted upon our police forces. As a result, I have initiated an inquiry with police forces to gather evidence on what the pandemic has meant for mental health demand on policing and what lessons can be learned.

According to evidence submitted to my inquiry, during the early stages of the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, half of police force respondents witnessed a drop in demand from people who would regularly contact them with regards to their mental health. As lockdown restrictions eased, a number of forces observed spikes in demand, some at unprecedented levels for that time of year. Furthermore, several forces shared concerns for an increase in calls from people experiencing mental health problems who had no previous contact ever before.

I firmly believe that agencies must work together to understand the impacts of these initial findings – mapping how, where or if the repeat callers were seeking support instead. A lot of focus was put on domestic abuse and contact from victims. A multiagency approach could yield valuable feedback.

In terms of solutions, ideas such as video appointments and mental health emergency departments have been delivered or expedited as a solution to the pandemic in policing and health services. Many have talked about these ideas for some time – so let’s see the required long-term investment and embed these solutions on a permanent basis.

As is often said, you can go into a hospital with a broken leg and be treated the same day, yet with mental health it can take months for people to get the care they desperately need. Why not speed up assessments and use video routinely to reduce the time the police spend dealing with cases involving mental health and ensure vulnerable people are receiving the necessary support as quickly as possible? We can end the frustration of delays at section 136 suites with such facilities and quicker assessments.

We are also missing opportunities to support people with their mental health. New helplines and text services are fantastic and are giving people who may not have sought help before more options. Community services and charities are helping avoid police call outs.

But are we missing opportunities to promote these more? In the first three days of its launch, ten million people downloaded the NHS Track and Trace app. Should there not be a link to a mental health guide, which would reach millions with very little effort?

Post-pandemic, there is a chance to close the gap between physical and mental health. People are regularly invited to screenings, as well as NHS Health Checks for physical conditions every five years between the ages of 40–74. With the correct long-term investment in capacity, recruitment and training, why not offer the same for people who want to talk about their mental health and have a check-up?

Eat Out to Help Out provided a much-needed boost to the hospitality sector as we came out of the first pandemic. A similar boost to people’s mental health and wellbeing is available as many leisure facilities are offering memberships without joining fees. Is there scope for the government to support such approaches and provide a boost to both people’s well-being and the leisure sector by introducing a similar scheme?

Partnerships with companies that provide pay-as-you-go gym apps could provide free or discounted passes for the first month after the “Tier” structure ends, simply and quickly, for gyms, pools and classes. A taster may encourage more people to get active.

So much has changed and improved over the last ten years, yet we still see vulnerable people suffering with ill mental health come to the attention of the police. I feel passionately that we can all do so much more to improve the nation’s mental health and get people the support they deserve. The forthcoming Mental Health Act White paper is an opportunity to get this right.

This article was first published on 11 December 2020 in the APCC Bulletin.

We don’t need new ‘Tsars’ to oversee the fight against knife crime – we’ve already got PCCs

Article first appeared on Conservative Home in March 2019.

This week Sajid Javid summoned Chief Constables from the forces that police our largest metropolitan areas most affected by knife crime to the second Chief Constables’ roundtable.

Every death is a tragedy, and the violence on the streets is seeing too many young lives end, devastating both families and neighbourhoods alike. The Home Secretary is right to call this a disease; its symptoms are many and varied. But its cure lies in a multi-pronged approach that backs our police, boosts our criminal justice system and empowers Police and Crime Commissioners to prevent and rehabilitate.

The debate on the police settlement cannot be ignored. Over the last ten years, crime has changed, demands are differing and resources have reduced, creating a perfect storm of challenges that have seen our brave officers and staff overstretched. Putting more boots on the ground is therefore something that has to be at the very top of the agenda for fixing this epidemic.

Yes, it takes time for the officers to be recruited and to get them out on the street. Since I was elected in 2016 I have made police numbers a priority. At every opportunity, I have raised the funding necessary to boost the number of officers again. By next year, there will be 450 more police officers in Kent, visible in our towns and villages and increasing their ability to catch criminals and investigate crime. But I’m not alone in this – every PCC who is in a position to do so is raising funds to increase officer and staff numbers again. I wouldn’t increase council tax if I didn’t think I needed to in order to do the right thing – I don’t think my colleagues would, either. Javid is right to push on this issue at Cabinet.

New powers to prevent knife crime are welcome. We also need to empower and support officers again to use the powers that they already have to get weapons off of our streets, and with more colleagues to do it. You can’t oppose stop and search to get elected and support it again when there is a problem to solve – this inconsistency sends the wrong message. It is also possible to make powers like stop and search accountable whilst giving officers the confidence they need to use it, free from the fear of complaints, thanks to body-worn video cameras.

Solving this problem is not just the responsibility of the police and PCCs; we need to address failures elsewhere. Seeing repeat perpetrators of violent crime on the steps of the courts grinning and taking selfies as they’ve walked away with a suspended sentence is a bitter pill to swallow for victims, witnesses and taxpayers. In recent years, efforts have been made to increase the sentences available for violent crimes, including knife crimes and attacks on emergency services workers, but they are meaningless unless they are being exercised.

And if people do go to prison, it has to be a place of meaningful punishment and rehabilitation. Many, but not all, of the perpetrators of knife crime are young when they are caught, which means that at some point, even within their youth, they will be released at the end of their sentence. If violent criminals are off the streets and in prison, we have an opportunity to prevent them from committing more offences and, with the right resources and programmes, the chance to change their lives. Prison hasn’t worked for a very long time, because of what it has become, not because it can’t work.

When they are released, we need to put them into contact with probation and rehabilitation services that work. There is still far too much re-offending post-prison. But there is little if any accountability for the performance of these services. PCCs and others are filling this gap through the provision of mentors.

PCCs are a voice for victims, the vulnerable and the voiceless. We champion the needs of residents, businesses and charities in the areas we represent. We are the golden thread that runs through policing, community safety and criminal justice through our work holding Chief Constables and other agencies to account, providing services for victims and working in partnership with others. We’ve published a summary of our work on violence here.

Therefore we are in a position to tackle some of these difficult challenges – a ready-made vehicle that is both accountable and transparent. We do not need any more unelected Tsars working nationally and detached from local neighbourhoods; we are working with and supporting them every day.

Rather than offer the short-term grants, the Home Office could bundle up the money already on offer, worth at least £30 million a year, and give it to Police and Crime Commissioners to deliver, alongside our own work and the leverage we can gain from other sources. We could also help improve the performance of criminal justice agencies if we were given the responsibility for holding them to account, and the funding for rehabilitation.

Javid has made great strides forward as Home Secretary to get to grips with a challenging Department and serious issues that need addressing. He is getting some traction and backing policing, but we can’t ignore the important sticking points of prevention and police numbers that need action now, as well as the reforms needed from the Ministry of Justice.