I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that when I get ill and need to see a doctor, or go to hospital, I can go to a safe place where I'm treated with dignity, listened to, and am able to engage in my treatment and care in order to get back on my feet as quickly as possible.
This is usually the case for how someone is treated with a physical illness, but for someone experiencing a mental health crisis, the same rules don't seem to apply. When someone is taken to hospital under the Mental Health Act, too often there are serious flaws in their care, such as a lack of respect and dignity in the way treatment is provided.
Being detained under the Act, or being 'sectioned', is a term that is used a lot, often evoking images of white coats and padded cells. It's a term that is frequently misunderstood. At its core, the intention is to protect people whose mental health might be at its worst, and may be at risk of harm either to themselves or others. If done well, it can be a turning point, laying the foundations in someone's recovery from serious mental illness.
The current Mental Health Act was created over 30 years ago, so it's perhaps not surprising that it's in need of an overhaul. Mental health organisations across the sector have been demanding change for many years. That's why this week's commitment in the Queen's speech to review and reform the Mental Health Act feels like a breakthrough moment.
The Government's recognition that change is needed is definitely an important first step. However, to ensure any new legislation is truly fit for purpose, in any review of the Mental Health Act, the Government must listen and take into account the views of the people the Act is there to help.
A new report published this week (22 June) by the Mental Health Alliance shows that the Mental Health Act is currently failing its purpose. The survey, conducted by Rethink Mental Illness on behalf of the Alliance, is the first of its kind, and reflects the views of over 8000 people who use mental health services, carers, and professionals working in the field. The message from people with direct experience of the Act, who commented in such large numbers, is stark. They have deep concerns that too often people's dignity, autonomy and human rights are being denied under the Mental Health Act.
This research laid bare people's often unnecessarily distressing experiences of being sectioned. However, what is striking is that even people who have been detained under the Act largely agree with the principle that there are circumstances when being treated against your will in hospital may be necessary. It is clear that there should be a system in place that enables people in need of urgent care for mental health problems to receive treatment, whilst protecting their rights and dignity.
At the moment, this isn't the case. 50% of respondents reported that they would not be confident that their human rights would be protected under the Mental Health Act if they were detained under it. Respondents also emphasised the gulf that still exists between the treatment of mental and physical health problems, with 72% reporting that they do not feel that the rights of people living with mental illness are protected and enforced as effectively as those for people living with a physical illness.
For Kate, who has borderline personality disorder and has been sectioned several times in the last two years, unfortunately these findings ring true. She explained to me that, "In my experience, nurses and health care assistants will only do the bare minimum to inform you of your rights. I've struggled to know what my rights were in terms of taking medication, and all I know is what I have tried to research for myself. I also found that the doctors were evasive and very poor at communicating what medication you're being prescribed, for what reason and informing you of any possible side effects. On one occasion I had visual hallucinations as a side effect of something I'd been given, and yet I was never informed about the identity of this medication, either at the time of administering it or afterwards."
It shouldn't be this hard. Being involved in your care and treatment should be part and parcel of any hospital stay. It's common sense. If someone is treated with dignity and respect, with treatment being explained to them, not just done to them, they are more likely to engage in their own care, and stay on the road to recovery. It's routine practice for physical health problems so it's about time mental health caught up.
What this research shows about the Mental Health Act is that, as it stands, there are serious flaws in the care and treatment people receive. Of course, in an ideal world, no one would get to the point where they need to be sectioned. There are a number of improvements to mental health care that are still needed, from quicker access to mental health services, and increased availability of mental health professionals to support people in the community. These changes could go a long way in stemming the rise in people being detained, but at the end of the day, there is still a need for a Mental Health Act that provides a level of care and treatment that people sometimes require.
The Government has a golden opportunity here to reform the Mental Health Act and make it fit purpose. Any new legislation needs to provide stronger rights, more choice and more dignified treatment for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis. However, for this to become a reality, the Government must first and foremost listen to, and involve people with first hand experience of the Act in this process, as these are the people it's there to help.
To read the full report, visit www.rethink.org/fitfortomorrow