We regularly hear that Britain is in the midst of a mental health crisis and that 1 in 4 of us in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Indeed, the British Medical Association (BMA) recently claimed that mental health patients across the country are being failed by the government with a crisis that is “spiralling out of control as demand far outweighs capacity”. Yet earlier this week, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Mark Rowley, announced that as of 31 August 2023, the Met will no longer attend 999 calls linked to mental health incidents. In an attempt to allow the Met to focus on their core duties of upholding the law, preventing crime, and pursuing bringing to justice those who break that law, Rowley has laid out that only where there is an immediate threat to life will officers continue to respond. Although an element of police work in the UK consists of protecting, helping, and reassuring community, the ongoing erosion of our national services through 13 years of Conservative cuts and austerity has meant that already underfunded and under-resourced police are increasingly responding to mental health calls adding to a complex and interconnected picture of the current state of our public services in 2023 Britain.
Whilst conversations around mental health have shifted in recent years, the surrounding language used often contributes to the devaluing of mental health as opposed to physical health, reaffirming inaccurate stereotypes alongside contributing to ongoing stigma. Whilst inclusive terminology is contested, the mental health charity Mind use the phrase ‘mental health problems’ as they state, “many people who experience them have told us this feels helpful and appropriate for them” and as such is adopted in this piece.
The Met to cease responding to emergency calls about mental health
In a Guardian exclusive by Vikram Dodd on 28 May, it was revealed that “Rowley’s letter to the Met’s health and social care partners was sent on 24 May, giving them a 99-day deadline to plan for the change”. It comes after Rowley recently stated that officers in the Met spend around 10,000 hours a month dealing with mental health issues with the Met getting a call about a mental health concern every four minutes. Arguing the move will free up officer resources, a recent internal police report claims that “40% of the Met’s work had a mental health element”.
The move has not gone without criticism, with a former Inspector of Constabulary claiming such a move is potentially alarming. Further concern is raised regarding the attached caveat that such conditions will only be waived if a threat to life is feared – how this is defined is yet to be seen. Whilst this pivotal moment in policing relates only to the Met police, being the largest police force in England, the risk is that what they do is often replicated throughout forces and therefore a concern for us all.
The mental health system in the UK continues to be eroded. Chronic lack of funding alongside increased demand, highlighted in the Care Quality Commission’s 2020/2021 State of Care report has meant that thousands across the country are already being failed. There are numerous charities and organisations doing commendable work however this exists above a backdrop of declining numbers of psychiatric beds being available and the NHS stating that in terms of current government funding, “trying to proceed on this budget, with current levels of inflation, may affect how services are delivered”.
The complexities of mental health
Although discussion of ‘data’ within such a sensitive topic is ethically uncomfortable due to its real-life impact, it does provide insight for valuable conversations. Acknowledging that mental health does not discriminate, the discussion of ‘groups’ of people as homogenous entities can be problematic. Yet what it does allow for is generalisations important in policy and practice. In terms of risk to particular ‘groups’, those who identify as part of the LGBTIQ+ community are often deemed to be ‘high risk’ in terms of experiencing mental health problems. However, causation factors are often societal such as discrimination, hate crime and homophobia. When discussing suicide specifically, statistics reveal a gendered problem with men remaining victims in far greater numbers than women. A government report published in 2017 showed that men, divorced people and those living in ‘less well-off areas’ are at a great risk of suicide. Both a localised and gendered lens adds to such shocking statistics which should be of national urgency. The North East continues to have the highest rates of suicide in England and death by suicide continues to be the most common cause of death amongst men under the age of 50 in England. In what the Samaritans term the ‘gender paradox’, it is acknowledged that whilst contributing factors are complex, women are more likely to self-harm and attempt suicide than men, however men “tend to choose more lethal methods of suicide than women”.
Men need to talk
Such a short article cannot do justice to the plethora of factors which go alongside mental health and gender however, our patriarchal society undoubtedly contributes to social expectations which often contribute to men being less likely to seek help for mental health problems. Hegemonic notions of masculinity and manhood have long reinforced a ‘man up’ attitude harmful to all, with shame being “a central, dominant and often debilitating emotion in the male identity” as noted by JJ Bola in his book Mask Off, Masculinity Redefined. Whilst there is evidence that stigma around discussing mental health for men is lessening, with Mind finding that as of 2019 “men are almost 3x more likely to see a therapist if they’re low or worried than they were in 2009” this is yet to be reflected in the wider statistics. Whilst we all have a role to play, the media and popular culture are undeniably influential. Nationally celebrities have contributed to normalising such conversations such as internationally renowned grime artist Stormzy opening up about his struggle with depression, helping to reduce the stigma and adding to nuances within the conversation such as race and class. Locally football, which continues to be dominated by male supporters, forms a real part of individual and geographic identity, and the creation of dedicated campaigns such as Newcastle United Football Club’s Be a Game Changer, goes some way in encouraging an open, ongoing conversation about mental health in everyday settings.
An epidemic for us all
Fundamentally the police are not the most appropriate people to be responding to those struggling with their mental health but the announcement of the Met police ceasing to respond to mental health calls should be a worry for all. The political climate is central to this debate and with the cost-of-living crisis continuing to exacerbate many of struggles for millions up and down the country transformative services are needed now. Whilst is it acknowledged that changes can’t be immediate and that dismantling harmful societal norms alongside addressing the devaluing and underfunding of our public services will take time, now more than ever it is important that we work collaboratively towards compassionate and inclusive access to health services which are undeniably lifesaving.
*There are numerous national and grassroots organisations providing support and information for those experiencing mental health problems, or their family and friends, and below is an initial list which can be accessed online:
Andy’s Man Club
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM)
Samaritans (24 hours a day, 365 days a year)
JJ Bola (2019) Mask Off, Masculinity Redefined. London: Pluto Press.