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Black & Minority Ethnic Groups: Concern over mental health training in public sector

Educating police and teachers on early signs of mental illness could be catastrophic for black and minority groups, say critics

A mental health group has criticised a report recommending police, teachers and other public sector workers should be trained to spot early signs of mental illness, saying it could marginalise those of black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Black Mental Health UK (BMHUK) has accused the report’s authors, which includes a group of prominent mental health charities, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, of ignoring black and minority ethnic (BME) communities’ views on the possible fallout of their proposal.

The group claims that, if implemented, the recommendation could increase the chances of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds being misdiagnosed by amateurs with no professional mental health credentials and lead to further stigmatisation. People from black African-Caribbean backgrounds are more likely to enter the mental health system through the criminal justice system than any other group, and campaigners are worried that encouraging police officers to try to “spot” signs of mental distress could exacerbate the problem.

“There are grave concerns over the suggestion that the police or teachers should be trained in spotting signs of mental ill health,” said Matilda MacAttram, of BMHUK. “Currently black men are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts, as such it is unwise to suggest that the police should be responsible for spotting signs of mental ill health. It could lead to catastrophic results.”

The Future Vision Coalition, the umbrella group behind the report, risks losing credibility if potentially negative fallout of such a policy is not fully assessed, claimed MacAttram. The “labelling” or stigmatising of young people is a particular area of concern. “There is a real danger that cultural norms could be misconstrued, which could have disastrous consequences for a child’s educational career,” she added.

Steve Shrubb, the coalition’s chair, insisted that, far from being damaging to people from BME backgrounds, the proposed training would directly benefit marginalised and “diverse” groups. He said the number of organisations involved with the coalition had doubled since it first started and that many of these represented the views “of a range of vulnerable” groups.

“What we are saying is that mental health awareness training should be included in induction programmes for public sector workers.” he said. “People who work in public services often come into contact with people with mental health difficulties, and we are saying that helping them to identify how to direct someone to the assistance they need is very worthwhile.”

The police and teachers are “a special case”, Shrubb suggested, and should be provided with extra mental health training. “This is not about creating amateur psychiatrists. In our report we talk about how we can improve services for lots of vulnerable groups and BME [individuals] are one of those groups,” he said.

The aim, Shrubb said, was to improve services from local authority housing departments to jobcentre plus, as well as from teachers and the police. The views of BME groups had been put forward in discussions, he added.

As well as mental health awareness training, the report – A Future for Mental Health – makes a number of recommendations including the appointment of a “champion” for mental health issues in government at Cabinet level, and the widening of access to “talking therapies” beyond working age adults to children and older people.

Angela Greatley, chief executive of coalition member the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, said too little was being done to promote good mental health in schools, workplaces and communities and that the 10-year agenda laid out in today’s report would contribute to “better life chances” for a wider range of people.

According to MacAttram, the views of BME campaigners were not adequately canvassed before the report. “This could have done with input from black groups who could speak out on behalf of those who will be directly affected by these suggestions,” she said.

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