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Mental health crises and gaps in funding - what I learned on a walking patrol with Totnes Police

SA Updated
Mental health crises and gaps in funding - what I learned on a walking patrol with Totnes Police

Underfunding in mental health, social services and a reduction in police officer to resident interactions were the main issues mentioned in conversations with local police officers in Totnes.

Totnes and South Devon MP Anthony Mangnall was being shown around Totnes by Devon and Cornwall Police officers Superintendent Ben Davies, Sergeant Natalie Booth and Police Community Support Officer Kirsty Meakin, and I tagged along too. 

Anthony Mangnall MP speaks to Supt Ben Davies

One of the first issues that was brought up was the struggle with mental health and the fact that the police are currently being used as a ‘catch all’ service when it comes to people in crisis in the South Hams.

The cuts to local council budgets means that mental health services have drastically reduced as Devon County Council has to withdraw from anything but providing essential services. This has reduced the amount of support for people in the community and reduced early intervention. 

Using the police to deal with people in mental health crisis is not part of their job description, but routinely they are being called to these kinds of incidents. As well as being deeply distressing for those involved, they also tend to take a long time to resolve, removing those police officers from the streets. 

Even once the situation has been resolved and a person is in custody or being sectioned, police officers (always two) are then having to take them to A&E, where the current NHS funding crisis means that there are very few beds and very few staff to be able to take over from police officers when they arrive. 

If they need to then take them to an official Place of Safety, the closest one is in Exeter, a near one and a half hour round trip from Totnes, and that is before any handover that is required. There is another planned for Torbay, but that is still close to an hour away. 

There is hope that recent funding to the tune of £2million into mental health facilities in Torbay. The funding will allow for pirchasing 100 new mental health ambulances, which can take mental health staff to patients, and then transport them to a place for appropriate care. 

Mental health issues were a big topic of conversation (stock photo)

Another gap in the funding that was highlighted by the officers was in social care, especially children’s services. Supt Davies explained that while the social services and the police work excellently at the most serious end of the spectrum when it comes to child protection, they don’t have the resources to extend the support to lower level incidents and concerns, things that could be prevented before they escalate. 

The lack of early intervention due to lack of funding with child protection, anti-social behaviour and mental health is really having an impact on the streets of Totnes and the wider South Hams. 

As police officer numbers reduced, alongside much more of the police’s job going online, the closure of the front desks in South Hams police stations and the reduction of officers ‘on the beat’ has, in the opinion of the officers I spoke to, reduced the amount of interaction police can have directly with the public and the reduction of the amount of local information which is being fed back through to the officers. 

There is an attempt to increase that feedback though the Councillor advocate scheme, connecting local councillors, the police and the police and crime commissioner, and the trial of reopening front desks in police stations. Reopening a public front desk in police stations has so far been a success in Newton Abbot and it is hoped that Ivybridge and Totnes would be in the next round of opening. 

Homelessness and rough sleeping was another (stock photo)

Homelessness and rough sleeping was another topic that was brought up and PCSO Meakin explained that there were two ‘officially’ homeless people in Totnes at the time. 

When it was suggested that one of those people was homeless “through choice”, I asked how that came about. “Mental health problems” was again the answer, so while a difficult position for authorities to be in,  “choice” would be quite a relative term in that situation. 

There are also problems with a severe lack of temporary accommodation in the South Hams and many people will refuse temporary accommodation in Plymouth or other areas. While this may seem counterintuitive, the community in Totnes and any support network people might have in the area, would be ripped away from them if they were housed so far away from everyone and everything they know. 

“Intentionally homeless” was a phrase that came up later in a conversation with PCSO Meakin. Talking about someone she had come to know quite well through her work, she said the council had classed her as having “intentionally made themselves homeless” due to nonpayment of a charge. But as PCSO Meakin explained, these kinds of rules don’t take into consideration the kind of chaotic lifestyle many people live with. “She would never have known there was a charge or when she would have had to pay it.”

PCSO Meakin appeared to be very connected with the community and she has worked to create a dialogue with local people, from all backgrounds, and really valued the relationship she had with the town and its residents and recognised the individuality that Totnes has. 

She also understood the impact that trauma can have on people and how lives can spiral out of control quickly. We spoke about the effects of addiction leading to homelessness, as well as a large number of people who turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with the trauma of homelessness. 

She told a tragic story of an individual who was succeeding in life before they received an injury at work. They were prescribed painkillers for the injury, this led to an addiction to painkillers, which led to losing their job and their home, which led to an addiction to heroin, and tragically an early death. A path that many of us couldn’t imagine but could so easily be on after just one or two strikes of bad luck. 

Totnes Methodist Church (geograph)

One real positive in the couple of hours we were able to tour Totnes was the strong community spirit on display around every corner. The high street, packed full of independent shops, was bustling despite the roadworks, and the market at the top of town was full of creativity and entrepreneurship (and the smells that were coming from the food stalls were incredible). 

We visited the Rushbrook Centre who support adults with learning difficulties and help support local families and were practically dragged into the Totnes Methodist Church for refreshments during their Friday coffee morning. 

A really enlightening morning that showed that Totnes Police are doing a difficult job in difficult conditions, but the community within the town means that people are also passionately supported by their friends and neighbours.


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