Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
11 October 2007

Big, black and dangerous?

Institutionalised racism is widespread in the mental health service, yet the government refuses to f

By Tom Marchbanks

When a dispute over a telephone call turned racist, it set off a chain of events which led to David “Rocky” Bennett’s death. Soaked in his own urine, he died less than two hours later in a struggle with four psychiatric nurses.

David’s undignified death, in the hands of his carers, took place after an argument with a fellow inpatient at The Norvic Clinic. It is one of 22 black male deaths in psychiatric custody over the last 29 years.

For many, David’s story draws an uncomfortable parallel with that of Stephen Lawrence’s. Like Stephen’s, his death led to an independent inquiry, which found institutionalised racism widespread in the mental health service.

It is an accusation of tremendous consequence for the black community who, as in criminal justice system, are over represented in the mental health system. A 2006 census on admissions to mental health institutes found that Black Caribbean or African groups are three or more times likely to be incarcerated, rising to 18 times the average for the group, “other black men”.

Since the David Bennett Inquiry published its findings in 2003, campaigners insist little has been done. Harmet Athwal of the Institute of Race Relations believes “there is still a fear and stereotype associated with the black man which leads to the continued institutional racism in the mental health service.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

The racism manifests itself – according to Professor Suman Fernando – in the diagnosis and risk assessments of black patients. Generally they are seen as primitive or troublesome, given high doses of medication and more likely to be set upon by staff. It is this unnecessary use of force, he says: “That is often a cause of death.”

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

The Department of Health admits there is a problem. “Black and minority ethnic patients are more likely to experience compulsory psychiatric treatment, to be diagnosed as violent and detained in secure Mental Health Units, less likely to receive diagnosis and treatment at an early stage, and less likely to receive psychotherapy and counselling, ” a spokeswoman said.

Despite this startling assessment, the government denies it is a result of racism. “We just don’t believe that institutional racism is a helpful label to apply – the solutions lie in the hands of individuals, not just institutions.”

It is a heads in the sand response; one that seems to delegate responsibility, rather than admit to what Professor Fernando describes as a “paternalistic, old fashioned and condescending“, system of mental health treatment.

In 2005, the government set up the Delivering Race Equality strategy to ensure parity in mental care and as a response to the Bennett Inquiry. Seen largely as simply throwing money at the problem, Matilda MacAttram, Director of Black Mental Health UK says “it has had absolutely no impact in improving the ethnic inequalities in inpatient care.” “The whole situation is a crisis,” MacAttram adds “one that hits a small community already disadvantaged, doubly hard.”

This week’s World Mental Health Day focuses on ‘Mental health in a changing world: the impact of culture and diversity’.