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18 December 2006

Labour’s draconian mental health plans

The NUS disabled officer attacks 'draconian' mental health legislation

By Alex Kemp

What is it with New Labour? There appears to be an endless succession of policies that allege to ‘protect’ the public by removing basic civil liberties. If it’s not expensive ID cards, it’s detaining terror suspects for seemingly endless periods of time, all in the name of ‘protection’.

This time, though, they’ve gone too far. The draconian amendments to the current mental health legislation proposed by New Labour fly in the face of what the mental health system needs. And it’s not just NUS that are campaigning against them – it’s almost every organisation even remotely connected to mental health – a coalition of doctors, nurses, clinicians, service users, families and carers.

To date, one can only be detained if it can be proved that mental ill health can be treated. The focus, rightly, was upon ensuring that people got better through treatment, rather than forcing detention on someone when treatment would be of no use. New Labour proposes to remove this protection and section people regardless of the effectiveness of treatment.

Herein lies a fundamental moral shift from personal safety to so-called public protection. Their argument is based upon what they view to be a legal ‘loophole’ whereby those with mental ill health have had sections removed when it can be proved that there is no use for them individually. It’s not a loophole, it’s a safeguard to ensure that hospital wards don’t become prisons. Psychiatrists are there to treat – not jail.

The basis of these suggestions appear to have originated from the tragic deaths of Lin and Megan Russell. Michael Stone, a patient who had been through the ‘revolving door’ of mental health services for many years, killed two women shortly after expressing murderous intentions to a psychiatrist.

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The difficulty here was not that Mr Stone was untreatable, but that the assessing psychiatrist was placed in an impossible situation, with no secure beds available, no detox centres (hardly any exist any more, favouring treatment in the community) and the police refusing to intervene.

Had the system focused upon the needs of Mr Stone as opposed to slotting him into the resources available, perhaps these tragic deaths could have been avoided.

New Labour appear to have conveniently ignored these points, focusing instead on removing the civil liberties of the majority to protect the minority. And it really is a minority – less than 4 per cent of murders are committed by those with mental health conditions, a surprisingly low statistic.

I’ve met hundreds of people with poor mental health, hundreds who have been through the mental health system and many who have been sectioned. I’ve never felt unsafe.

The argument that the discretion of clinicians can be relied upon is, at best, ridiculous. Even with the protection of approved social workers being party to a section, the figures for black people being sectioned is ridiculously high, as it is for lesbian and gay people.

And, amazingly, it’s not just treatability that the government has proposed to change. The definition of mental health under the proposed changes enable even wider discretion for individual clinicians, and even less safeguards for patients.

The removal of approved social workers being party to a section and replaced, potentially, with health care professionals results in the proven social effects of mental ill health (all important particularly for black, lesbian and gay people) being left by the wayside and only medical issues considered. And we’re still left with no provision for independent advocacy: the onus being on family members, almost always without any knowledge of the legislation, to advocate for patients in the courts and tribunals.

The draft amendments are highly unlikely to pass, given the wide condemnation that they have received from, well, pretty much anyone that has anything to do with mental health or the system. But they represent a worrying social policy trend of New Labour, and a shift away from civil liberties to purported public protection.