The Mental Health Bill was finally passed by the British parliament earlier this month. It is expected to receive Royal Assent by the end of July and to be enforced in 2008.
Despite a number of key concessions and amendments to the Bill, the new law will nevertheless be draconian in its effects on those who are diagnosed as mentally ill or disordered.
Under the new law, patients will be eligible for forcible detention even if they are not actually considered “treatable”. They will, however, have a right to an independent advocate, and any treatment they receive by force will have to be for the purpose of “alleviating” their condition. There will also be new powers to impose Community Treatment Orders (CTOs) – the so-called psychiatric ASBOs – on patients who are released from hospital back into the “community”. CTOs will allow the continuation of people’s forcible “care” as outpatients, as well as their forcible return to detention if they fail to comply.
The exact nature of many of the Bill’s powers has in fact not yet been clarified. Clarification has effectively been deferred until the formulation of the code of practice, work on which has yet to begin. Unresolved questions include the nature and definition of “treatment” in cases of personality disorder, and the practical application of CTOs, including their applicability or otherwise to those whose behaviour is regarded as “deviant” but who have not been diagnosed with any mental illness.
Despite an amendment to insert a “principle of respect for diversity” into the code of practice, concerns about racism in the interpretation and enforcement of the new law remain unassuaged. Black Mental Health UK has continued to express its fear that the Bill will mean a disproportional increase in the over-diagnosis and forcible detention of black patients, and has promised to continue its campaign against the new law. The Commission for Racial Equality has already strongly criticised the Bill, and there are calls for a judicial review.
The passing of the Bill coincided with the publication of the Department of Health’s latest survey on public attitudes to mental illness. This survey showed that tolerance of “mental illness” is decreasing and stigmatisation increasing, particularly where stigma is linked to the belief that the mentally ill are prone to violence. It is precisely this fear which underpins the Bill’s new powers of forcible detention, and which sanctions the curtailment of freedom in the name of “public safety” by a government which in truth cares little for either.
We're mad enough to think that this new law should never be allowed onto the statute books.
Come to think of it, quite a few of us are mad enough to think there shouldn't be any statute books ...