Labour Told Of Mental Health Stigma

The Mental Health Alliance delegates at the Labour Party conference criticised the governments new mental health changes. Speaking at the Mental Health Alliance (MHA) Fringe Event, Marcel Vige, Manager of Diverse Minds at MIND, focused on the challenge presented by the relationship between mental health and Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) communities. He highlighted evidence from the Caribbean census that demonstrated the over-representation of these groups in terms of mental health problems.

He went on to discuss these problems in detail, describing how the alienation of BME communities from mental health services and the stereotypes of black people that are carried through the diagnostic process combine to create significant challenges.

While there are strategies in place to attempt to develop a healthier relationship between these communities and mental health provision, Mr Vige argued that mental health legislation veers in the other direction so the two elements are divergent.

Mental health legislation is based on feelings of threat and fear and the government should run an anti-stigma campaign to address this.

Mr Vige indicated that while there have been positive developments in other areas of mental health, BME needs to be pushed up the agenda. He wanted to see consideration of race and culture as part of the treatment process, as with Scottish legislation.

He also said that the dropping of the previous Mental Health Bill was a testament to the influence mental health organisations can have on the development of legislation.

Mr Vige responded by referring to the provision in the Race Discrimination Act to legally challenge those that do not fulfil their ‘positive duty’ to take active steps towards reducing inequality. He suggested that although this was an area of law that needed to be tested it could be used if there is a breach.

Mr Vige referred to Lord Kamesh Patel’s recent call for a Royal Commission considering why a disproportionate number of those in BME communities are affected by mental health problems. He felt that a grand statement such as this would prove invaluable in increasing media awareness of the issue and breaking down the stereotypes they present.

Andy Bell, Chair of the Mental Health Alliance opened the meeting by stating that the MHA are expecting a short amendment bill on mental health to be introduced in the next Parliamentary session, which would replace the abandoned draft Mental Health Bill.

Cliff Prior, Chief Executive of Rethink, followed on from this point by highlighting the responsibility of mental health professionals to BME communities as these individuals situation worsens once in the system.

He also argued that this is one of the reasons the Government is reluctant to put principles on the face of the Bill. He emphasising the need for new legislation as the Mental Health Act 1983 is based on work carried out in the 1950s.

Current legislation is not compatible with Human Rights law or the Mental Capacity Act so the new amendments are essential. He applauded recent Scottish legislation, which has successfully addressed these issues.

Moving on to discuss the content of the Bill, Mr Prior said that there are several components, which will tackle the challenges around mental health in England today.

The core component is the creation of a single definition of mental health disorder. He also mentioned the provision of supervised community treatment, changing of the six month time period to await a tribunal and amendment of the Mental Capacity Act in regard to Bournewood patients.

However, Mr Prior also noted the elements of the draft Mental Health Bill which have been removed from the new piece of legislation. He was particularly concerned by the removal of the right to independent advocacy for those with mental health conditions.

Mr Prior closed his speech by stating that the MHA believed that new mental health legislation must start with principles and include a good definition of mental health and emphasise the importance of therapeutic value for those with mental health problems.

He also referred to the report released this morning on the Michael Stone case and suggested that it was essential that the MHA ensure that this process does not increase prejudice against the mentally ill.

Doug Naysmith MP, also present at the meeting, spoke to the audience briefly regarding his observations on mental health legislation.

As a member of the Joint Scrutiny Committee that considered the Mental Health Bill 2004, which produced excellent recommendations in the view of Mr Bell of the MHA, Mr Naysmith knew of the challenges posed by the current mental health legislation in England.

Mr Naysmith stated that he was not aware of the Government plans for mental health legislation but that he hoped they would deliver an acceptable Bill.

He also noted the negative influence of the tabloid press on the mental health agenda. My Naysmith cited the example of the different messages that came out of the Home Office and Department of Health during his time on the Joint Scrutiny Committee and suggested that the media were to blame for this.

In the question and answer session, Martin Ball of Together asked if the new legislation could go forward legally if it did not consider the issue of race.

Responding to a question from the floor, Mr Prior said that the levels of ‘Not in my Back Yard’ feelings had become extraordinary.

Potential sites for mental health facilities had been burnt out and collusion and corruption in local authorities had shown the stigma and prejudice connected to those with mental health illnesses. This was one of the key reasons that the Government needs to fund an anti-stigma campaign.

Mr Prior suggested that ordinary people are misled by the media into believing that all people with mental health illnesses are dangerous, and that some politicians collude with this message. Working with neighbours of potential schemes was a possible solution.

Mr Naysmith later suggested that it would be advantageous if local MPs were approached to speak to users of local mental health services in order to bypass the media representation of the mentally ill.

Mr Prior finished his comments by reflecting on recent achievements in raising the profile of mental health. He mentioned the statue of Winston Churchill in a straitjacket as a prime example of this and also noted the positive impact of programmes such as Stephen Fry’s BBC documentary on mental illness.