Seni’s law is a major step towards ensuring mental health patients are treated with care and compassion
A new law to make police and medics more accountable for the use of force in mental health units is vital if we’re to avoid a repeat of the Seni Lewis tragedy, says Steve Reed
Seni Lewis, 23, lived with his parents in Thornton Heath. He was fit, healthy and, having recently graduated from university, had a bright future ahead. His parents found him one Sunday morning in a very agitated state which they quickly recognised as mental ill health.
Deeply worried, Seni’s parents took him to the local hospital and he was later transferred to a mental health hospital. They stayed with him until the evening and then went home.
After his parents left, Seni became very anxious and tried to leave. He resisted attempts by hospital staff to restrain him and they called the police. Eleven police officers took Seni into a seclusion unit with his arms handcuffed behind his head, his legs in shackles, and pinned him face-down on the floor until he suffered a heart attack and became unconscious. Shortly afterwards, Seni died.
Seni’s devastated parents were left to fight the state for years to find out what had happened. Serious failings by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police meant no inquest into Seni’s death was held for seven years. As the family’s MP, I raised questions in parliament and took them to meet the then home secretary, Theresa May. Having lost their son in the most appalling circumstances, the family were now denied the justice they deserved.
When the coroner’s verdict finally came in June 2017, it was damning. It found that Seni had been subject to “prolonged disproportionate and unreasonable” restraint. Training for police and hospital staff was inadequate, responsibilities were unclear, medical staff failed to respond to the medical emergency and the hospital was failing to follow its own policies on patient safety. The coroner warned that without change further deaths could occur.
That change is the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill, known as ‘Seni’s law’, in memory of the young man whose death inspired it. According to the mental health charity Mind, there have been 13 face-down restraint-related deaths since 1998 and over 1,000 physical injuries. Much of that suffering could have been avoided if lessons had been learned from the many inquests into similar deaths going back decades.
Look at the faces of those who died and it’s clear that young black men are disproportionately at risk. There are widespread fears in the black community of unconscious racial bias in the mental health services, with anecdotal evidence linking many deaths to prejudices about young black men, drugs, psychosis and violence.
The government’s race disproportionality report, published last autumn, includes statistics on deaths in prison and police custody, but is silent on mental health custody because no statistics exist.
Seni’s law will standardise record-keeping every time restraint is used against a patient in any mental health hospital. For the first time, we will be able to compare hospitals with each other, and see whether some groups – young black men, women, the disabled – are subject to disproportionate levels of force.
Every hospital will have a policy on reducing force, and a named senior manager accountable for its implementation, including training on de-escalation. The system will be opened up to scrutiny and accountability for the first time.
Police officers in mental health hospitals will have to wear body cameras. I’m discussing with the government how we ensure that every non-natural death automatically triggers a fully independent investigation with legal aid for the deceased person’s family. The bill requires the government to publish an annual report summarising inquest findings and how those vital lessons are being learned.
Seni’s law is a major step towards ensuring mental health patients are treated with care and compassion, not cruelty. It will make sure the system learns when things go wrong. It enjoys the support of every professional body, patients’ group and trade union in the mental health sector, and of the police.
The bill is due for its third reading in the House of Commons in June and, with continued cross-party support, should be on the statute books by the end of the year.
Seni’s parents’ profound wish is that their son’s death was not in vain. Although nothing can bring Seni back, this new law will honour his memory by making sure no one else suffers the way he did.
Steve Reed is Labour MP for Croydon North. The Committee Stage of the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill is scheduled for 15 June