Punishing the sick

Observations on Asbos

Roger (not his real name) is autistic: he has severe learning difficulties and little ability to empathise with others. His mother used to look after him, but she moved into a nursing home, so now he has no one to help him.

His local council - Sandwell in the West Midlands - says he disturbs his neighbours by playing his television and stereo too loud, slamming doors and playing drums, problems that started after he found himself alone. The council gave his neighbours monitoring forms to gather evidence against him and eventually he was made the subject of an antisocial behaviour injunction. When he breached this by swearing, he received a two-year suspended custodial sentence. Now he faces eviction.

Roger's barrister, Annabel Goodman, who has a background in psychology, believes he is a victim of a social failure. "His behaviour is not so serious and is inextricably linked to his mental impairment," she says. "He receives no support to assist him to live independently in the community - the support he should be receiving from the same authority trying to evict him."

Roger is not the only person with mental health problems caught up in the drive to banish antisocial behaviour from our housing estates and streets. Though there is no direct monitoring, the government's own 2002 review of antisocial behaviour found that in 60 per cent of cases there were mitigating circumstances such as mental distress, addiction or learning difficulties. Independent studies by bodies such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation put the figure slightly higher, at roughly two-thirds.

The anecdotal evidence is also piling up: a disabled woman threatened with eviction for letting her garden become overgrown; a teenager with Asperger's syndrome banned from looking into a neighbour's garden; a child with Tourette's syndrome banned from swearing in public; an epileptic deaf woman evicted when neighbours complained about noise.

Mental health charities such as Mind are alarmed. "Behaviour that is symptomatic of mental distress and mental health problems is being treated as action that is antisocial and requires a criminal justice response, not a therapeutic response," says the charity's policy director, Marcus Roberts. "We are also concerned about the lack of monitoring. We cannot tell how many people with mental health problems are being issued with Asbos. But I suspect it is significant numbers."

Roberts points out that the legal definition of antisocial behaviour as behaviour likely to cause alarm or distress can easily catch people with mental health problems. "Mental distress can manifest itself in things like noise or failing to maintain a well-ordered flat and getting rubbish out. It can be an aspect of being ill."

The Home Office claims vulnerable people are protected because local authorities have a duty to assess any person who may be in need of community care services. "If there is evidence to suggest that a perpetrator of antisocial behaviour is suffering from mental health problems then a practitioner with specialist knowledge should be involved in an assessment process to determine the cause of the behaviour and how it can be addressed," said a spokesperson.

Sandwell Council insists it carries out such assessments, but Roger slipped through the safety net. He has suffered terribly and sometimes feels suicidal. And because nobody monitors these cases we don't know how many more there are like him.