The impact of using police cells on the mentally unwell

Mentally Ill in police cells

The Panorama documentary provided valuable insight into the distressing situations faced by those arrested or who are detained in police cells for personal safety reasons despite being recognised as having a mental illness.

The programme was graphic in content and underlined the requirement of further training for the police officers both on the front line and custody based. Our officers are expected to manage mentally unwell clients without relevant training with regards to managing such fragile and often frightened and unpredictable people.

20% of police time is currently dedicated to individuals with a mental illness, thus necessitating support to be implemented for all officers to assist them with implementing basic techniques to reduce an undesirable outcome for all.  Without relevant training both officers and the people they are attempting to help are vulnerable. Several officers are often required to reduce the risk to the client and themselves which means less police patrolling the streets which highlights the issue of community safety.

Police cells are not appropriate for those suffering with a mental illness, nor are they suitable for people with pervasive developmental disorder such as autism so why are people placed in police cells. Mental Health units are overstretched and have limited availability for emergency care, but a cold, lifeless, locked, isolated room is not appropriate for a paranoid schizophrenic or a person with suicidal ideations who desperately needs support and care from someone who understands them and has time to dedicate in a protective, warm and most importantly safe environment.

The Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis, who maintained that accident and emergency rooms would be a better place for mentally ill people than police stations, was in my opinion correct in her assertions. Police cells are not suitable for those who are confused, scared and traumatised. The long term impact on individuals with a mental illness who have been arrested or placed in a cell for risk management is devastating.

This I understand from first-hand experience with my clients and the distress is so overtly apparent and remains for years. Imagine reliving an event everyday whereby you were locked in a cell for 15 hours and not understanding why. Why no one seems to understand or care. You scream and shout; self-harm by banging your head repeatedly in a bid to be released and no one can help you for several hours. An officer sits outside the door staring, trying but not knowing how to help but what you need is an atmosphere which offers you hope and reduces your distress.

The answer is expensive but necessary. Mental Health is a prominent issue and more time and money must be dedicated to improving services and providing additional mental health emergency care units within a hospital setting or on a private basis.


Katherine Goodsell

Chartered Psychologist, Chartered Scientist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society