How the UK’s Mental Health Act is failing vulnerable people

Independent review suggests improved rights for people detained under the Act

Mental health
(Image credit: Getty Images)

An independent review of the UK’s Mental Health Act has recommended sweeping reforms to restore rights to patients.

The 50,000 people a year who are sectioned under the legislation should be able to set out how they want to be treated and challenge doctors’ decisions about them, said the year-long review, which was led by Professor Sir Simon Wessely, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

The review said patients detained in a psychiatric unit need a “major extension of their rights” because being locked up can be “traumatic” and “damaging”, reports The Guardian.

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There also needs to be an end to the “burning injustice” whereby people from ethnic minorities are disproportionately sectioned, the review concluded.

Black people are “four times more likely to be detained” under the “outdated” Mental Health Act than white people, in a legal process that allows patients to be kept on a secure ward and treated against their will, it said.

The review argues that police cells should never be used as places of safety. It found that police transported around 10,600 patients to places of safety in England in 2017-18, compared to ambulances, which took about 9,300 people. And “on more than 400 occasions, those who were mentally ill were detained in police cells”, reports The Daily Telegraph.

Wessely said: “It's not fair people are put in the back of police vans like criminals rather than go in an ambulance to hospital like everyone else. You will no longer be held in a police cell, there should be a proper place of safety for everyone around the country, not a prison.”

The review suggests a number of ways in which the Mental Health Act could be brought up to speed, with a focus on patients being given more power over their future.

Currently, “a person who has been sectioned or is at risk of being sectioned can express views about how they want to be treated when they are detained”, says HuffPost. But there is little in place to ensure that their views are respected.

In the wake of the review, commissioned by Theresa May in 2017, the Government has announced it would be advancing legislation to enact two of the review’s 150 recommendations.

That includes new rights for patients to challenge doctors’ treatment decisions at a tribunal, and to nominate who should make decisions about their treatment and detention.

However, “these changes do not directly address the systemic issues experienced by black and minority ethnic patients”, says The Independent.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said thousands of people have been left too long without support, become severely unwell and then experience poor treatment under the Act, only to be left living with the consequences.

“The recommendations to strengthen people’s rights, empower them to question decisions about their care, choose their treatment and involve friends and family have the potential to make a real difference to those who are in an extremely vulnerable situation,” he said.

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