On Friday 22 June, the Government was three minutes away from approving a bill that would protect thousands of mental health patients from being restrained with an unnecessary level of force. Three small minutes away from providing some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society the assurance that they do not risk serious injury or death when they enter care. But, as you will no doubt be surprised to hear, democracy doesn’t always work the way that we want it to.
Seni Lewis died when he was restrained in a seclusion cell by as many as 11 police officers. He had entered care voluntarily in an effort to seek help for his condition, but found himself pinned down when staff called the police after they struggled with his difficult behaviour, and was detained using an archaic but commonly used technique for subduing patients. His family have been seeking to ensure that incidents like this never happen again, but progress has been slow.
Tragically, Seni’s experience eight years ago is by no means an isolated incident. Between 2016-17, 48 out of England’s 56 mental health trusts reported 3652 patients experiencing injuries following being restrained. This is the highest on record. In a year when the treatment of mental illness is at the top of the political agenda, with the Mental Health Act currently under review, there is a terrible irony in aspects of patient care getting worse.
Last November, the MP Steve Reed brought a Private Members Bill to Parliament that would protect vulnerable patients from the type of treatment that Seni Lewis was subjected to, and thousands of other vulnerable people experience every year. Since then, Seni’s Law, as it has come to be known, has gained cross party support. It was expected to pass without issue last Friday, but faltered in the last minutes of the debate.
Worryingly, this puts the Bill in a precarious position. According to Parliamentary rules, if it fails to pass third reading, the Bill dies. Friday 6th July is our final chance to make Seni’s Law a reality.
Both mental health workers and the police have a tough job. As many as one third of police interactions are with people with a mental health condition. Sometimes their job requires a patient to be restrained in order to protect themselves, other patients, and the public. What we at Rethink Mental Illness object to is how anyone could think that 11 police officers restraining one person could ever be considered appropriate. The use of this level of force is incredibly stressful, and can have long term consequences for someone’s recovery process. We will always advocate for the minimal level of force needed.
Seni’s Law still has a chance. But I also won’t mince my words; we need public and political support to get this through. Without it, we risk another Seni Lewis. And that is something that none of us should feel comfortable accepting.
Write to your MP. Tell your friends to do the same. It’s up to all of us to #SaveSenisLaw.