Today (10 October 2023) is World Mental health Day. This year the theme is ‘Mental Health is A Human Right’. How do human rights relate to mental health? We answered some common questions in one article about mental health and human rights. Now, MQ copywriter Juliette Burton explores how the law impacts our individual rights when it comes to severe mental illness and the impact that can have on a life.
Every year I wait with bated breath to hear what the ‘theme’ for World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is. Just as I do for the ‘theme’ of Mental health awareness week (MHAW) in May. It’s kind of like the same way some people might wait excited to hear the line up of the football team they support or how some might feel about seeing the latest Autumn/Winter collections. For me, it’s akin to waiting excitedly to hear the Strictly Come Dancing or Drag Race UK line up.
This October, the theme is ‘Mental Health is a Human Right’.
This seems like a far bigger topic than previous themes. Where in previous years of WMHD or MHAW, we’ve discussed mental health in the context of grander ideologies such as ‘resilience’ or one condition such as ‘eating disorders’, this is a HUGE broadening of mental health as a RIGHT.
It’s hard to argue against the concept of having human rights. However it is, as I understand it, an actual job to argue what exactly IS a human right. I believe that job is called ‘human rights lawyer’. My understanding of that job comes primarily from Colin Firth’s character in Bridget Jones’ diary – a human rights lawyer who’s very busy, serious and important and who defends the rights of education, expression and to not be punished unjustly, all while looking rather dashing. I’m fairly sure that last bit is mainly down to Firth and not a requirement of the law.
The first thing that sprang to my mind when I heard about this theme, after Colin Firth as Mark Darcy of course, was being sectioned under the mental health act.
I was sectioned under the mental health act when I was 17. This means I was kept in hospital under a legal act passed by the Government in 1983. This legislation covers the treatment, assessment, and rights of those with mental illnesses.
This process of being ‘detained’ happens without your consent, to protect your right to life.
I was deemed a “risk unto myself or others” – a legal phrase that means if doctors and those close to me agreed I was either putting my own health or safety at risk or the health and safety of those around me at risk, then I would be hospitalised even though I was unprepared. I did not want to go to this hospital, despite being hospitalised before. And I was hospitalised again after this experience too.
Two rights legally go head to head when you’re sectioned : the right to life and the right to liberty or freedom. This then becomes a grey area surrounding other rights, such as your right to not be discriminated against and your right to not suffer inhumane treatment.
How can someone be sectioned?
You can be sectioned most commonly under section 2 and section 3 of this act. I was detained due to anorexia. I was told I was a month away from dying of the illness and I showed no signs of changing my behaviour. The decision to section me was to save my life. The realities of it are far more nuanced and complicated, something for another article. To skirt over the hard-to-read, harder-to-remember moments, I’d briefly highlight forceable actions, derogatory comments and the severe stress which led to me experiencing psychotic hallucinations both audible, visual and tactile.
Psychosis was not what I was detained for but was something I experienced as a result of losing my right to freedom. The stress of being sectioned and how I was treated led to my psychosis, one of the most terrifying and confusing times of my life which has lived with me, impacted, and imposed upon my very daily existence.
Essentially, being sectioned meant my right to freedom or liberty was taken away. And subsequently, the way I was treated was open to interpretation. During my time while sectioned, I could be treated in whatever way the staff felt necessary. Legally, I did not have much of a leg to stand on. Find out more in this blog on human rights and mental health. This is why the mental health act needs reform.
Is the Mental Health Act being reformed?
There seems to be some confusion surrounding whether the Mental Health Act, which hasn’t been reformed for longer than I’ve been alive (and I hate to say that I now am classed as middle aged).
In 2021, the UK Government said it would consider reforming the Mental Health Act. This act, which hasn’t been reformed in 40 years, holds a lot that could be amended.
The reform could include changes so that people:
- who are sectioned, like I was, are detained for shorter periods and only when vitally necessary,
- receiving treatment, like I have, can exercise more choice and autonomy about their treatment, my experience alongside MQ’s encouragement of PPIE in research and resarchers overwhelmingly positive response to this encourages this as helpful and productive for recovery and improvement in symptoms
- are treated equally and fairly
- with learning disabilities and autism are treated better legally
Back in January this year (2023), the long-awaited reform of the act, which exists to help those in a mental health crisis to be detained in hospital, moved closer to actualisation when the Joint committee of the Draft Mental Health Bill published a report.
But in August, The Times published a concerning indication that the UK Government were reconsidering the reform.
“Ministers are poised to mothball a key government pledge to reform the Mental Health Act, in a “betrayal” of thousands with serious illnesses.” The Times (August 2023)
The mental health act needs reform so that it works better for the people who need it most. People like me. The act needs to reflect the fact that all of us have mental health just like physical health. Those with mental illnesses are human. To force those of us experiencing difficulties into a position of ‘outsider’ or ‘other’ is dehumanising. Yet there is nothing more human than struggling with being alive.
As mental health drops further down the political agenda, MQ has joined several other organisations to call on all parties, and the government, to prioritize mental health and the reform of the mental health act. You can read more here.