In England, a person can be detained under the Mental Health Act and treated against their will if mental health professionals decide that a person is “suffering from mental disorder of a nature or degree which makes it appropriate for the patient to receive medical treatment in a hospital”. English law does not take account of a person’s ability to make decisions for themselves, so doctors are free to make whatever clinical decisions they think necessary, including the use of powerful medication.
We want to change this and make it unlawful to deny the right to exercise informed consent. The UK premiere of the movie ‘55 STEPS’ on Friday 21st June 2019 marked the start of this new campaign – ‘my voice my choice’ – to respect autonomy in mental health care.
‘55 STEPS’ stars Helena Bonham Carter in the true story of the struggle of Eleanor Riese who, with her lawyer, Colette Hughes, fought for and won her right to exercise (and in her case, withhold) consent to forced medication while in psychiatric care in California.
Helena Bonham Carter, the writer and producer of the movie (Mark Bruce Rosin), and the human rights lawyer Colette Hughes (played in the movie by Hilary Swank), flew over from Los Angeles to participate in a special screening of the movie hosted by the University of Westminster, supported by the Universities of Liverpool and Manchester and the Association of Clinical Psychologists. Helena, Mark, Colette, Norman Lamb and Peter Kinderman formed a Q&A panel after the film, chaired by Sara Tai. Around 300 people attended the evening and took part in the discussion.
There was widespread support for the idea that we need to move on from old, paternalistic views of mental health care, including the legislation that governs compulsion. Colette Hughes spoke inspirationally on the need to see mental health care as a matter of civil rights and collective struggle. Mark Bruce Rosin and Helena Bonham Carter spoke about how making the film had deepened their compassion for, and understanding of, the lives of people experiencing mental health problems. Sir Norman Lamb spoke with great impact, condemning our current mental health care system and its accompanying raft of legislation as violating our human rights every day, and calling for a reform of the law to respect, fully, each individual’s right to autonomy.
As Rai Waddingham powerfully summed up, both on the night and in her subsequent blog, this should be: “a battle cry against forced ‘treatment’ for us all”.
We accept the challenge.
Here, in the UK, we remain in the horrifying position that we can be detained and treated under the Mental Health Act even if we are legally capable of making decisions for ourselves.
Every year, around 46,000 people in England are subject to compulsory treatment under the Mental Health Act. Black people are around four times more likely to be ‘Sectioned’ than White people.
Other countries have a more civilised approach. In Scotland, forcible treatment is only lawful if; “… the patient’s ability to make decisions about the provision of such medical treatment is significantly impaired”, and in Canada if; “the person is unable to understand and to make an informed decision”. These safeguards are missing from English law.
Sadly, the recent UK government’s Independent Review of the Mental Health Act 1983 failed to deal with this issue despite considerable evidence of unacceptable, including abusive, treatment as revealed by BBC Panorama in uncover reports at Whorlton Hill and Winterbourne View hospitals.
Let’s take steps to change the law here in the UK, protecting the rights of people within the mental health care system to exercise informed consent and preserve their autonomy.
But… you could do it, too!
Get a licence (they’re affordable for charitable purposes), find a venue, and invite colleagues via social media.