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Using police cells to detain people with mental illness to be banned under new reforms

May Bulman

Police cells will no longer be used to detain people experiencing mental illness, Theresa May has announced as part of a package of measures that she says will “overhaul” the government’s approach to mental health.

Weeks before she is due to leave office, the prime minister has unveiled a commitment to overhaul the controversial Mental Health Act in order to make it “fit for modern society”.

It comes two years after she pledged to “rip up” the act, which allows patients to be kept on a secure ward and treated against their will – a process that has been branded “outdated”, particularly due to its disproportionate use on black people.

An independent review into the act last year found that sweeping reforms would be needed to restore rights to mental health patients and end the “burning injustice” which means people from ethnic minorities were disproportionately sectioned.

It revealed black people were four times more likely to be detained under the act than whites, and that there was a need to challenge attitudes and – largely unconscious – biases towards ethnic minority patients which led to excessive use of restraint and “community treatment orders”.

In 2017/18, some 49,551 people were detained under the Mental Health Act and the average cost of each detention has been estimated at £18,315 – for a bill of more than £900m a year.

While there has been a 95 per cent fall in the use of police cells and custody suites as a place of safety since 2011, they still accounted for 3.9 per cent of detentions in 2016/17, figures showed.

In her announcement, Ms May confirmed that a White Paper would be published before the end of the year in response to the review's findings, setting out the steps taken to tackle unequal treatment faced by ethnic minority groups.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, who chaired the review and is former chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), said Ms May’s announcement presented a “welcome step” towards the goal of ensuring that the recommendations of his review were acted on.

President of the RCP Professor Wendy Burn meanwhile said that while it was “good to see” the start of the implementation of the recommendations from the review, success would depend on “continued commitment" from future prime ministers.

Ms May also announced the introduction of new measures to equip schools, social workers, local authorities and healthcare services to promote resilience and identify those in need.

She said every new teacher would now be trained in how to spot the signs of mental health issues, ​backed up by updated statutory guidance to make clear schools’ responsibilities to protect children’s mental wellbeing.

The prime minister said: “Too many of us have seen first-hand the devastating consequences of mental illness, which is why tackling this burning injustice has always been a personal priority for me.

“But we should never accept a rise in mental health problems as inevitable. It’s time to rethink how we tackle this issue, which is why I believe the next great revolution in mental health should be in prevention."