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We must deal with issues of bias and lack of recognition of special needs

4 min read

Baroness Massey writes for PoliticsHome on better ways to protect vulnerable people in our mental health support system.


Today, a private members bill on the use of force in Mental Health Units will have its second reading debate in the House of Lords. A debate that I will lead in the House, but why is the Bill so important?

In 2010 a young man, Olaseni Lewis – also known as Seni – was a patient at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Croydon. An incident occurred, in which Seni had attempted to leave the hospital’s mental health unit but as restrained, face down, by police officers, suffered a heart attack and died four days later.

The protection of patients is not a party political issue and was not treated as such in the House of Commons, where Seni’s MP Steve Reed first brought this bill last November. All sides supported its principles, recognising these are matters of human rights and how vulnerable people are treated in systems which should be set up to protect them.

How big is the problem? Through a series of information requests sent to Mental Health Trusts in England in 2016/17, the Crisis Prevention Institute discovered that 3,652 patients had been injured while being restrained during NHS treatment. 46 have died between 2000 and 2014. 13% of Trusts did not have a policy in place to reduce the use of restraint. 97,000 restraints took place with more than 2,600 staff assaulted by patients during interventions.

In the Lords, I plan to probe five issues relating to the Bill: guidance, training of personnel working with people in Mental Health Units, patient involvement, bias in the use of restraint, and the treatment of children.

These issues must be addressed in the Bill’s guidance, which will be absolutely crucial to the success of measures suggested. There is already statutory guidance but it isn’t working well enough. I hope therefore, that ministers will make clear when new guidance will be issued. And that as part of any consultation, contributions from NGOs, parliamentarians, staff and clients of mental health units be taken into account.

The second vital issue, for me is training, totally crucial to deliver the outcomes we all want. What kind of training are we talking about? Those of us who have ever delivered training to anyone know that training is not just about giving lectures. It is about exploring feelings about issues, sharing experiences, getting below the surface of deep and fundamental problems which may exist. It is about asking patients to suggest recommendations about behaviour.

How will the views of patients be sought? Patients need to understand their rights but also contribute to decision making about their treatment. If respected, people are more likely to understand issues, feel respected and contribute to solving problems.

Then, restraint and bias. Amongst patients admitted to mental health units, there may be people of different races, faiths and religion, age and ability – physical or mental. As Steve Reed told the Commons, “if we look at the faces of the people who have died after severe restraint in a mental health hospital, we see many more young, black faces than in the population as a whole.” There is huge need to understand and deal with the issues of bias and lack of recognition of special needs.

Finally, I have a particular concern about the treatment of children both in the youth justice system and in Mental Health Units. Anyone of 18 or under is a child, but those on the cusp of adulthood are at particular risk. They are frequently treated in institutions as adults, and also placed with adults – something that is both inappropriate and can place them at risk.

I not only look forward to the debate and getting widespread support for this bill, but the positive engagement of the government in addressing all of these concerns.

Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Massey - Government must commit to the UN's recommendations on children's rights

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