Almost one in five detentions in police custody in Northern Ireland involve someone vulnerable to self-harming.
Of the 26,886 admissions to custody cells in 2015, 4,990 (18.6%) involved an individual with a propensity to inflict injury on themselves.
Of the total detentions in 12 months, 1,677 cases (6.2%) related to individuals deemed suicidal and 1,653 (6.1%) involved someone with a mental health condition. One in 15 detentions (6.7%) involved an individual with a drug addiction.
Police highlighted the stark statistics as they warned of the escalating mental health problems being witnessed in custody suites throughout Northern Ireland.
In Belfast, the issues are even more prevalent - more than a quarter (28%) of detentions at Musgrave Street city centre police station involve self-harming individuals, 12.5% of the total were suicidal, and drugs were an issue in 13.8% of cases.
Superintendent Bobby Singleton said the issues being faced by the PSNI reflected the growing mental health problem across society as a whole. He noted that in a typical 24-hour period, the PSNI will attend 24 incidents involving a mental health issue.
“It is a significant challenge, it is a societal issue,” he said.
“We have significant complexity in terms of the detained persons, the individuals who come into police custody. We are seeing an increasing number of individuals with varied alcohol and drug addictions.
“Daily we receive individuals self-harming, using a number of means to do that, and suicidal attempts as well.
“So the picture is becoming much more complex, therefore requiring a much more sophisticated, health care solution - a joined-up approach involving both health and justice.”
Mr Singleton said a major factor was the increasing variety of drugs available to addicts.
He said it was becoming more difficult to determine what drugs a detained person had consumed, with many taking dangerous cocktails.
“There is so much more available now,” he said.
“So much more available in terms of ‘legal highs’, the use and abuse of prescription drugs - so it is more complicated in terms of what individuals are consuming. It is therefore more difficult to be able to identify the impact that will have on the person.”
Mr Singleton said police were now working with other agencies in the justice and health sectors with the aim of developing new ways to deal with the growing problems.
Among proposals being considered is hiring mental health nurses to accompany police patrols, embedding doctors and nurses in custody suites and establishing dedicated “places of safety” for vulnerable individuals, as an alternative to police custody.
The Public Health Agency is currently developing a Health Needs Assessment for PSNI custody and Stormont’s departments of justice and health are working on a joint strategy.
“All of this is around trying to deal with vulnerability,” said Mr Singleton.
“And that can only be achieved through a joined-up approach.”