Inspector Bill Scott from North Yorkshire Police explains how our York Pathways project helps ensure that people with multiple vulnerabilities don’t fall through service gaps.

During the last six months in North Yorkshire and York, over 5,000 people – known to us to have mental health needs – came into contact with police, with around 25,000 incidents recorded. Not all people experiencing mental distress will be identified as such, so these figures are likely a considerable underestimation. People might be surprised to know that only 17 per cent of calls to the police relate to crime. Of the remaining 83 percent, a significant proportion involve vulnerability in one form or another. As police officers, we aren’t mental health professionals, so it’s difficult for us to be sure whether people have mental health issues. However, we estimate that around 40 percent of our time is spent engaging with people with mental health needs. Police and emergency services get a significant number of calls where mental distress is the primary issue.

If someone is in distress, has been drinking or lives in a rural area, often they can’t get themselves to A&E. People know that dialling 999 is free, response is quick, and that there is a good chance that someone will come out to see them. In contrast, mental health crisis teams were not designed to undertake this role, and usually only have resources to respond within standard working hours. This equates to approximately 40 hours a week, leaving a potential 128 hours where professional support isn’t available.

Together has offered us innovative ways to reduce mental distress

As a police service, we’ve got to recalibrate our thinking from being entirely focused on cutting crime “nothing more, nothing less” – to also recognising and responding to people with mental health needs, so they can access appropriate help. We need to build a coordinated system locally to ensure that people with complex needs are able to get support; support they are ironically often unable to access due to the complexity of their needs.

Through its York Pathways service, Together has offered us innovative ways to reduce mental distress in the local area. It acts to integrate local services rather than temporarily plug holes in an already fragmented system. Together works strategically with local services in order to create system-wide structures that close gaps in a sustainable way.

For example, they developed a strategic partnership board, comprised of representatives from key local organisations – NHS, local authority, police and other emergency services – and service users, to support this approach. They put in place a process to enable people who are in regular contact with police and emergency services to be referred to their specialist Pathways service. Here, Pathways workers assess each person’s needs and liaise with local care providers to coordinate responses which address their often multiple vulnerabilities.

North Yorkshire Police set up a Community Safety Hub located in the City of York Council’s head office, staffed by police, to promote information-sharing between local services. A York Pathways worker is based here, so that when police identify someone with a vulnerability who needs help and wants to engage with support, they can refer them directly to the Pathways service. The inclusion criteria for access are broad with priority given to people who more frequently contact emergency services.

The Pathways project is helping us to reach our mental health objectives

Overall, the Pathways project is helping us to reach our mental health objectives – to effectively identify vulnerabilities, record those vulnerabilities in a way that is understood by our partners, respond in the most appropriate way, make relevant referrals and review our actions to manage needs and risks. 

It has helped improve police awareness of mental health issues and other vulnerabilities. We can better see the person behind the incident and the life circumstances that may have led to their contact with the police. There’s a growing understanding that by addressing people’s needs, crisis and dependency on emergency services can be reduced. If we don’t help address the causes, we’ll be forced to continue managing the symptoms. This awareness enables us to better recognise and respond to vulnerabilities, to more accurately record these kinds of needs and to ask if there is anything we could do better.

People previously excluded from services now have hope and an option to do some longer-term problem solving to help improve stability in their lives. Early data indicates that there has been a 37 percent decrease in crisis contacts from people participating in the Pathways project. Reducing crisis not only helps reduce distress and keeps people safe, it also reduces system costs.

We are now trying to work with partners across the rest of the county to expand the scheme and help sustain the existing service. As individual services, we don’t have the capacity to address the deep-rooted mental health and social issues underpinning our society alone. However, together we can grow capacity and build resilience to create lasting change.