Innocent, sick children locked in police cells – why are we not prioritising children in need?

Blog post for the Daily Mail, 20 November 2012

The most shocking headline this weekend was surely that young children are being locked up in police cells when they are suspected of being mentally ill at the rate of nearly one child a day. Freedom of Information requests revealed that 347 children were detained under the Mental Health Act last year; children who the police or ambulance service thought were so mentally disturbed that they needed to be taken to a place of safety and assessed by a psychiatrist. The trouble was that there simply weren’t enough safe places to which children could be taken, so day after day an acutely distressed, vulnerable and sick child ended up in a police cell where they were totally isolated, instead of being in the reassuring presence of a qualified professional in supportive surroundings.

As with so many other illnesses, early assessment in mental illness is crucial to finding both the right treatment and for a more rapid rate of recovery. Imagine your child having a suspected appendicitis, being distraught in immense pain. The paramedic then tells you that as the local hospital’s abdominal surgeons are on an “away day” your child will be kept safe in a police cell in the meantime! (In one of the child cases above where they ended up in a police cell, mental health professionals were on an away day with no cover arranged at the local hospital). It’s a ludicrous comparison and scenario I will admit, such delays in assessment are unthinkable. However mental illness is just as important as physical; in fact it is in many ways unhelpful to separate the two as there are usually mental illness symptoms in physical sickness and physical symptoms in mental illness.

These are not children who have done anything wrong or criminal, they simply happen to be one of the 10% who at some point in their childhood suffer with mental illness. Even with a severe episode of ‘psychosis’ where someone loses touch with reality, for 25% of people it’s a one-off event.  Psychosis occurs in 3% of the population, making it more common than other conditions such as diabetes. Three-quarters of mental illness develops before we reach 25 years of age and overall mental illness accounts for about 23% of all disease (compared to cancer at 15% and heart disease at 16%) but only about 11% of the NHS budget is spent on mental health.

What this research highlights again today is that we are not resourcing mental health properly, and children’s services in particular are failing some of the most needy. The health minister Norman Lamb spoke on the radio yesterday about picking up with the Home Office on this issue, but he was getting mixed up with the provision of mental health services for  young offenders (also woefully inadequate). Mental health services for law-abiding young people are a joint responsibility for the Department of Health and the Department of Communities and Local Government, and although the health budget has been protected, cuts to Local Authority budgets have resulted in 53% of Councils cutting their mental health provision in the last year.

We have plenty of research that helps us predict the demand for mental healthcare. We also know that across the board, demand on the health budget is growing. While no politician will admit that we don’t have enough tax revenues to fund healthcare properly, and decisions on what we prioritise in the NHS are therefore taken by stealthy rationing, tragic occurrences such as the incarceration of highly needy children will continue. Surely politicians are failing some our most vulnerable children if they will not insist that child mental health is adequately resourced, even if it means that other, optional services are withdrawn? If there is one worthy task the new Police and Crime Commissioners can get straight on with, it is ensuring that no innocent, poorly child ends up in the police cells.

About Julia Manning

Julia is a social pioneer, writer and campaigner. She studied visual science at City University and became a member of the College of Optometrists in 1991, later specialising in visual impairment and diabetes. During her career in optometry, she lectured at City University, was a visiting clinician at the Royal Free Hospital and worked with Primary Care Trusts. She ran a domiciliary practice across south London and was a Director of the UK Institute of Optometry. Julia formed 20/20Health in 2006. Becoming an expert in digital health solutions, she led on the NHS–USA Veterans’ Health Digital Health Exchange Programme and was co-founder of the Health Tech and You Awards with Axa PPP and the Design Museum. Her research interests are now in harnessing digital to improve personal health, and she is a PhD candidate in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at UCL. She is also dedicated to creating a sustainable Whole School Wellbeing Community model for schools that builds relationships, discovers assets and develops life skills. She is a member of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Digital Health Council. Julia has shared 2020health's research widely in the media (BBC News, ITV, Channel 5 News, BBC 1′s The Big Questions & Victoria Derbyshire, BBC Radio 4 Today, PM and Woman's Hour, LBC) and has taken part in debates and contributed to BBC’s Newsnight, Panorama, You and Yours and ITV’s The Week.
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