The 2007 Mental Health Act: A matter of life or death for Black Briton

Sunday, 17 February 2008

February 2008

By Matilda MacAttram

The most significant changes to mental health legislation in a generation occurred last year with the introduction of the 2007 Mental Health Act. While information has not been widely available to minority groups, African Caribbean's will undoubtedly be the ones to  feel the full force of this change.

The new regulations were passed by parliament last July, despite relentless lobbying by race equality groups and black health experts. Every concern raised by black groups around the review of this law was sidelined by government officials and health ministers throughout the parliamentary process.

 

Rather than bringing in legislation that would address inequalities in treatment and care black patients face on a daily basis, new proposals in the law have widened the powers of forced detention, increased the professions who now have the power to detain and medicate a patient against their will and widened the gateway into the system.

 

New proposals within the Act include the introduction of CTOs (Community Treatment Orders). Community leaders warned that these plans will effectively make countless black people prisoners within their own homes. Slammed as ‘psychiatric asbos' by human rights group, the Government's own report on CTOs showed that there is no evidence that treating patients in their own homes has any clinical benefit but rather that CTOs could deter suffers from seeking help.

 

The Institute of Psychiatry also commissioned a study into the use of CTOs in six countries and concluded there is no evidence that they are of any clinical benefit. Ignoring the findings, the Government pressed on with their plans and now the new law will allow practitioners to force patients to take their medication while living in the community or face the threat of being forced back into hospital at a moments notice.

 

Campaigns group, Black Mental Health UK and church leaders repeatedly lobbied for the legal duties within the Human Rights Act and Race Relations Amendment Act and the Human Rights act to be included in the new law. Health officials refused saying that race would be dealt with in the drafting of the Code of Practice, which comes out of the Law. BMH UK's legal experts were clear from the outset that since the code of practice is not a legal document it can in no way be used to protect legal rights of patients against racial discrimination and abuse.

 

The new Act has been roundly condemned as a missed opportunity for legislation fit for the twenty-first century and was published amidst warnings from leading health experts that it will pose real dangers to the communities' health. Former government advisors, Professors Dr Kwame McKenzie and Professsor Sashi Sashidaran were among leaders who publicly warned of the dangers this new law will pose to the communities health.

 

The realisation of the far reaching consequences of this law has made clear the needs for a corporate response from the community in order to avoid losing another generation of black people to the mental health system. With detention rates of people from African Caribbean's far surpassing that of any other ethnic group, race equality and human rights groups are clear that this issue will touch the lives of every black family in the UK.

 

The crisis in mental health is increasingly being recognised as one of the most critical issues facing black Britons today.

With thousands of people up and down the country suffering in isolation within mental health hospitals, the growing feeling among human rights and race equality groups is the need to work with Church groups with established networks and extensive skills base in order to effectively respond to this crisis in a way that will lead to sustained change.

 

During the heat of the debate over the 2006 Mental Health Act, the eminent psychiatrist and academic, Professor Suman Fernando, publicly rejected an OBE in protest of the racist provisions within the Bill. In a public letter to the former Prime Minister he said: ‘failure of mental health services to meet the needs of BME communities results from institutional racism and injustices are evidently mostly in the experiences of black Caribbean people who are disproportionately sectioned and subjected to inappropriate - often damaging - ‘care', very least the Government can do is amend the Act to include a set of principles that will minimise the risk of injustice.' All such calls were ignored and two months later the 2006 Bill become law.

 

Just two months after the new Mental Health Act received Royal Ascent, new research revealed that the death rate in mental health care has skyrocketed. The report by the Deaths in Custody Forum brought to light the massive increase in the numbers of people dying while detained under the Mental Health Act. From January 2007 to September 2007 alone 300 people died while detained under the Mental Health Act.

 

Following hard on the heels of this devastating news the Government published the third national census on inpatient mental health hospitals. The new report, entitled ‘Count Me In 2007' has showed the numbers of people admitted to hospital over the last three years has fallen. However the number of Black people being detained within the system continues to rise.

 

As with all previous reports their findings showed that treatment of black patients was again typified by over medication, misdiagnosis, the over use of seclusion and forcible restraint.

 

With 2008 marking the 10th anniversary of the death of David ‘Rocky' Bennett there is growing feeling that the nation should not be allowed to forget this Stephen Laurence of the Mental Health world. Bennett was an African Caribbean patient, who tragically  lost his life on a mental health ward. On the night of his death he was racially abused by a fellow patient during a dispute over the hospital phone.  To diffuse the situation nurses told him that he would be moved to a more punative ward. In his distress he lashed out and was then forcibly restrained by a team of five nurses for almost half an hour. They only released him once they realised he had stopped breathing. No attempt was made to resuscitate him.

 

Human rights groups are outraged that the Count Me In Census 2007, shows that black people are still more likely to be forcibly restrained while in care.

 

Indeed eight years after the Bennett Inquiry report was published not one recommendation within this report has been implemented. It is clear that the political will of those in power determines whether there is a change in the treatment of one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. The developments that we have seen in the last twelve months speak for themselves.

 

This is something that needs to be remembered by our communities, not only now, but also when the time comes to re-elect those in power. The development's we have seen over the last 10 years have happened under our current government. We need to think about this when we decide how to vote. This issue is no longer about the right to equal health care. David Bennett and countless others like him make it clear that for African Caribbean communities this is now an issue of life and death.

 

Copyright © 2008 Matilda MacAttram All rights reserved.

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This expert opinion was first published in The year 2007 restropective  project and has been made available here by kind permission of  Ligali.

 

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