Background: Internationally, there is evidence of high rates of mental disorders amongst police custody detainees but this literature is limited, and there has been little research into the unmet needs of police detainees in the UK, or elsewhere. Such research could support better focussed interventions for improving 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 2-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 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 not only confirm high rates of mental health problems amongst police detainees but also demonstrate their high risk of suicide and high levels of unmet need, especially as regards accommodation. This underscores the need to provide mental health services in police stations, to help identify and resolve 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-95
Number of pages16
JournalCriminal Behaviour and Mental Health
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021


  • learning disabilities
  • major depression
  • police detainees
  • prevalence
  • psychotic disorder
  • suicide risk
  • unmet needs


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