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The prevalence of mental illness and unmet needs of police custody detainees

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Iain McKinnonORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND).


Background: The international and UK-based literature demonstrates high rates of mental health conditions amongst police custody detainees. However, this literature is limited, and there has been little research into the unmet needs of police detainees in the UK, or elsewhere. Yet such research could provide better insight into how interventions might be better targeted to improve health and recidivism outcomes. Aim: To examine psychiatric and developmental morbidity amongst police detainees, and ascertain differences in need between morbidity categories. Method: We used a cross-sectional study design and interviewed a 40% sample of people entering police custody in one South London police station over a two-week period. A series of standardised measures was administered to screen for the presence of mental illness, general health and social care needs. Results: A cohort of 134 people was generated, of whom nearly a third nearly one third (39, 29%) had current mental illness (major depression and/or psychosis); more had a lifetime diagnosis (54, 40%). Just under a fifth met the threshold for post-traumatic stress disorder (11, 8%). Clinically relevant alcohol or daily cannabis use affected about one quarter of the sample. Twenty-one percent (or 28) screened positive for personality disorder, 11% (or 15) for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and 4% (6) for intellectual disability. Nearly one fifth (24, 18%) were at risk for suicide. Those with psychosis, and those deemed at risk for suicide, had the highest levels of unmet need and, indeed, overall need. The most frequent unmet need was for accommodation. Conclusion: Our findings add to the existing literature by confirming high rates of mental health conditions amongst police detainees, and demonstrating substantial suicide risk and high levels of unmet need, especially as regards accommodation. This underscores the need to provide mental health services working in police stations, to help identify and address these issues at this early stage in the criminal justice system. Extending accommodation capacity to help some arrestees may help to save lives and interrupt cycling through the criminal justice system.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Samele C, McKinnon I, Brown P, Srivastava S, Arnold A, Hallet N, Forrester A

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health

Year: 2021

Volume: 31

Issue: 2

Pages: 80-95

Print publication date: 01/04/2021

Online publication date: 05/04/2021

Acceptance date: 08/03/2021

Date deposited: 18/02/2021

ISSN (print): 1932-8621

ISSN (electronic): 1471-2857

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons Ltd


DOI: 10.1002/cbm.2193


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Funder referenceFunder name
Guy's and St Thomas' Charity