Newcastle University experts call on government to end ‘criminalization’ of mental illness


The decline in the number of mental health beds is “strongly associated” with the increase in the number of prisons – and leading research from Newcastle University has called on the government to do more to “better integrate” health services into social services, housing and employment.

A new study – published in the British Journal of Psychiatry – has found that over the past 60 years the number of available psychiatric hospital beds has fallen by 93% as the English prison population has tripled.

Newcastle University senior professors Dr Patrick Keown and Dr Iain McKinnon explained that their research has highlighted that we may be seeing a criminalization of mental illness.

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Dr McKinnon – who is also a consultant psychiatrist with the Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Mental Health Trust – said it was not uncommon for there not to be a single psychiatric bed available in the region.

He said: “It is government policy to reduce beds, and unfortunately this has not been achieved with levels of investment in community mental health services that would match this reduction.”

The team’s work was based on a theory dating back to the 1930s called the Penrose Hypothesis – which first linked psychiatric beds to the prison population.

Commenting on the research, Dr McKinnon added, “There are clearly other factors that can help explain this relationship, but it’s interesting that this theory that has been around for about 80 years is still true.

“If you reduce the number of beds for mental illness patients, you realize that you really have to be really sick to get a bed.

“People can go into a crisis, and maybe come in contact with the police for some reason – maybe a public order offense because they’re not doing well – so there’s that real feeling of people who are not doing well and cannot get the treatment they need, so they get sicker and sicker. “

He said it was often linked to homelessness and other social issues, and it could lead people with mental illness to end up in the prison system.

He said any solution had to be far-reaching. He said: “It’s not just mental health beds and mental illness treatment that are needed.

“It’s also basic things like housing, employment support and the right level of social protection. It’s a whole range of things that are needed to stop the criminalization of people with health problems. mental.

“We can’t be categorical about a cause and an effect here, but we do know that there is at least a theoretical basis showing the criminalization of people with mental illness.”

Dr Keown added: ‘Our study shows that as the number of psychiatric beds available for the NHS declined, we saw in the following years an increase in the size of the prison population.

“We show that the reduction in the number of psychiatric beds is associated with more inmates 10 years later, and this was true for the entire period from 1960 to 2019.

“For every 100 psychiatric beds closed, there were 36 more inmates 10 years later – three more women and 33 more men. “

Dr McKinnon said the research should be taken seriously by policy makers, and added: ‘We believe that further bed closures, especially secure beds for offenders, including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities , and proposed changes to mental health legislation should be very carefully considered.

“This is especially in light of the potential criminalization of people with mental health disorders, including mild learning disabilities or borderline intellectual functioning.”

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In response, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs said: “The government has released its white paper on reforming the mental health law.

“These reforms will provide better support for people in the criminal justice system, allowing patients to receive the care they need as soon as possible.”

“We have also released our Mental Health Recovery Action Plan, which includes £ 2.5million to boost a pilot project supporting offenders with significant mental health needs and helping them access support they need. “

The DHSC says by 2023/2024 two million more people will receive mental health care – and this is supported by a limited funding pot of £ 2.3bn per year.

If this article has affected you and you want to speak with someone, there are hotlines and support groups available, many of them 24/7.

The NHS Choices website lists the following helplines and support networks for people to talk to.

  • Samaritans (116,123 in the UK and Ireland) operates a 24 hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you feel or are worried about being overheard over the phone, you can email The Samaritans at [email protected]
  • Childline (0800 1111) operates a helpline for children and young people in the UK. Calls are free and the number will not appear on your phone bill.
  • PAPYRUS (0800 068 41 41) is an association of assistance to adolescents and young adults in situation of suicide.
  • Mind (0300 123 3393) is an England-based charity that provides advice and support to empower anyone facing a mental health issue. They campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.
  • Students Against Depression is a website for students who are depressed, in a bad mood, or with suicidal thoughts.
  • Bullying UK is a website for children and adults affected by bullying.
  • If U Care Share is a North East suicide awareness and prevention charity that offers a free and confidential text support service available by sending an SMS to IUCS at 85258.

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