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Locked up forever under mental health law

by Lester Holloway

THE GOVERNMENT have been forced back to the drawing board on mental health following a torrent of criticism against a proposed law, which experts fear will lead to Black people being “locked up forever.”

Chinyere Inyama at the mental health reception last Tuesday in the House of Lords.

News of the climbdown came at a gathering of Black mental health experts and campaigners organised by The 1990 Trust.

Black mental health experts warned last week that unless the draft Mental Health Bill is rewritten many Black people will end up “locked up forever” instead of having access to recovery-centred services.

Health ministers were taken aback by the strength of criticism directed against the draft Mental Health Bill, which has now been sent back for a second re-write before its' expected reintroduction to parliament in October.

Campaigners are now calling on the government to listen to the concerns of Black communities and work with experts to design better legislation.


The saga of the Mental Health Bill has dragged on for four years with the proposed law being shelved in 2002 only to re-emerge in 2004 to a chorus of criticism that it would be a licence to discriminate.

Professor Suman Fernando
Professor Suman Fernando: proposed mental health law would lead to people being detained “indefinately.”

In December a government-appointed advisory group slammed the proposed Bill which they predicted would perpetuate the trends of disproportionately sectioning, restraining and over-medicating African-Caribbeans.

Speaking at last weeks' reception before several peers, Professor Suman Fernando said criticised the governments' intention to widen the definition of 'mental disorder'.

This was a catch-all phrase that would potentially suck in anyone “with odd ideas or peculiar behaviour.”

He said the Mental Health Bill, as it stands, would lead to people being detained “indefinitely” if they were judged a “substantial risk” – even if they had not committed any crime.

Under the term 'schizophrenia' many misdiagnosis were already being made with Black people disproportionately falling foul of value judgements made by white professionals.

'no further consultation' 

“Current racial inequalities would be exacerbated and any group deemed to be a risk will be detained”, Professor Fernando warned.

Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo
Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo: said racism within the mental health system should be “resisted.”

Despite the Bill's rewrite health minister Lord Warner said there will be “no further formal consultation.”

This contrasts with a promise by health minister Rosie Winterton that there would be “further consultation” on the race equality impact assessment (REIA) following protests that the Department of Health had not properly advertised REIA meetings.

The REIA has taken on added significance with the announcement that it will be published “alongside” the Bill.

The REIA is expected to be critical of the Bill and ministers will be under pressure to prove that any changes made in the rewritten Bill have addressed Black experts concerns.

Health ministers are likely to face specific questions about how any rewritten Bill will address the levels of disproportionality revealed in the recent 'Count Me In' report, the first national census of inpatient psychiatric hospitals published in December.


It found that African Caribbeans are 44% more likely to be sectioned than white patients, at least 25% more likely to be detained, and 70% less likely to be referred by their GP for counselling and other non-institutional rehabilitation treatments.

Lee Jasper
Lee Jasper: compared discrimination in British mental health system to apartheid South Africa.

'Count Me In' also found that police were twice as likely to refer African Caribbeans to the mental health system, and that use of control and restraint was 29% higher for Black inpatients.

Lee Jasper, chair of the African Caribbean Mental Health Commission, said the figures were “comparable with a mental health service in an institutionally racist state.”

He added: 'Those facts are horrendous. What's missing from the government is any acceptance that institutionalised racism is driving these figures.

'Would you send your mother, if she were Black, to a mental health institution? Not on these figures. I'd take them to church or find some other means.

'The figures are so overwhelmingly bad they are reflective of a mental health system almost in an apartheid state. I'd like to compare these figures with the mental health system in South Africa during apartheid.'

Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo, head of 13,000-strong church Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC), called on the government to “look again and make changes” to the current racist mental health system.

He said: 'Anything which legalises a system that is already over-detaining and over-medicating Black people should be resisted. As a pastor I have heard too many stories if Black people beings sectioned for being “too exuberant.”'

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