Last week, we marked a major breakthrough in the battle for more compassionate care in our mental health services.
The Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill – aiming to reduce the use of restraint – has been given Royal Assent, which means it has become law.
This is particularly good news for the thousands of women and girls who have been regularly and repeatedly restrained in mental health wards across the country.
National guidelines suggest that physical restraint should be used only as a last resort but our data suggests this is far from the case.
Agenda’s research has shown that one in five women and girls are physically restrained, including face-down, with girls restrained at particularly high rates.
The pervasive use of restraint is particularly concerning because of the potential it has to retraumatise the many women and girls in mental health settings who have experienced abuse and violence.
More than half of women who have mental health problems have experienced abuse – and the links are particularly pronounced for those with more severe illnesses.
Being physically held down and clothes pulled out of place, often in front of others, can be an extremely humiliating, as well as frightening, experience. Therefore, the use of restraint is unlikely to improve mental well-being in the short or long-term – and is likely to do the opposite.
This is not to mention the well-documented physical dangers of restraint.
This new piece of legislation has come to be known as ‘Seni’s Law’ and is named after Olaseni Lewis who died after 11 police officers restrained him in a mental health unit in 2010. It was brought to Parliament by his MP Steve Reed – and its passing is a testament to the commitment of Seni’s family, who have fought tirelessly for years to bring about change.
Unfortunately, Seni’s tragic death is far from the only one. Our own research, using data from the Care Quality Commission, showed that 32 women died over five years after being restrained.
Therefore this new law, which includes a number of measures aimed at reducing the use of restraint, has the potential not only to change lives but to save them.
Part of this is making sure mental health units are held more accountable for their use of restraint.
It includes introducing training for mental health staff to help them understand the impact of trauma on a person’s mental health – which will help them recognise how using restraint might exacerbate that trauma.
It will also help them de-escalate situations without having to resort to force.
It will also ensure there is better data collection so that trusts can identify groups that are being disproportionately affected and make the necessary changes to stop that from happening.
Some mental health trusts are already doing great work to reduce restraint – but this law will help all trusts to move in the right direction.
Women and girls have been restrained at alarming and unacceptable rates for too long. This law could make a real difference to them.
But restraint is not the only area of mental health care where we need to see improvement for women and girls. Currently, too many are not able to get the help they need, when they need it.
Agenda’s Women in Mind campaign is calling for women and girls’ mental health to be made a priority with support given to women that takes into account their particular needs and experiences, including histories of violence and abuse. We will continue to campaign to make that a reality.
In the meantime, this law is a vital first step to ensuring mental health units are the caring and therapeutic places they should be.