“It’s part of a cover-up”: Why do MPs want to change the Mental Health Act’s name?

As the legislation faces a review, politicians want it renamed.


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In October last year, Theresa May announced a review of the Mental Health Act. The legislation, passed in 1983, is best known for its use in sectioning patients suffering mental illness.

Over the last ten years, use of the Act has been increasing. A rising number of people are being detained – a disproportionate number of them from black and ethnic minority groups, particularly those of African-Caribbean and African descent.

This is why an advisory panel made up of 31 psychiatry experts, healthcare and social work professionals, politicians and activists are reviewing the Act and its use.

Led by head of psychiatry at King’s College London and former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Professor Simon Wessely, the review is looking to improve a process by which the balance of a patient’s rights with their best interests is notoriously tricky to strike – and sometimes legally confusing.

The interim report on overhauling the Act, released earlier this month, acknowledges the rising awareness and treatment of more common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety – but warns “the most severe forms of mental illness” remain in “the shadows”.

“Those with the most severe forms of mental illness have the greatest needs, and continue to be the most neglected and discriminated against,” reads the report. And these are the people who are most likely to come into contact with the Mental Health Act.

 Two MPs are looking to overcome this stigma in the very branding of the Act itself – by changing its name to the “Mental Illness Act”.

Helen Whately, member of the review’s advisory panel and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on mental health, has sent a letter with her fellow MP Johnny Mercer, who is vice-chair of the group and a member of the Health Select Committee, calling for the review to change the Act’s name.

The reason given in the letter is that the name, focusing on “health”, doesn’t directly refer to what the Act is for: illness.

“The Mental Health Act comes from an era when there was this sense of shame. If we are truly committed to ending the stigma, the Act should play its part. Let’s say it as it is, and rename it as the Mental Illness Act.”

This is not a new focus for Mercer, who opened up about his experience of OCD earlier this year. “For me, this crusade on mental health is very personal,” he says.

A few months ago, he found himself “wincing” during a radio interview when referring to the Mental Health Act. This made him think the Act’s name should be changed, so that people ask “why is it ‘Mental Illness’?” and start talking about those conditions without shame.

Mercer raised the idea in a recent interview with the Telegraph, adding that mental health trusts should be renamed “mental illness trusts”, in the hope of bringing about a better understanding of mental illness.

“It’s so clear to me in my mind what mental health is, I want to try and articulate that better,” he tells me. “One of the best things we can do is try and separate mental health and mental illness.”

He breaks down the difference: “Mental illness is diagnosable, you get treatment from the state, the legislation is there to protect you. Mental health is something a lot of us do every single day,” he says. “I go running for my mental health.”

Whately condemns the Act’s name as “fundamentally misleading”, and accuses it of being a “throwback to the days when there was so much stigma about mental illness that people didn’t describe it like that”.

She says it’s “almost like it’s part of a cover-up that it was called the Mental Health Act”, warning that there is “still the stigma, and actually we’re talking much more about ‘mental health’ now but people talk far less about serious mental illness”.

Whately also goes further, urging a change in casual use of phrases in the media and everyday language, like “committed suicide”, and describing things as “insane” and “crazy”.

“Insane means something. Shouldn’t we think again about how we use that language?” she asks.

Professor Wessely only received the MPs’ letter this week, and the panel hasn’t yet met to discuss a potential name change.

While it seems the review’s priorities – about pursuing dignity and tackling discrimination in the detention process – will take precedence, one panel member argues off the record that a name change shouldn’t be overlooked: “It’s bigger than the detail, in a way.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.