Crossing the rocky road towards fair mental health treatment

Society always seems to tread a fine line when dealing with mental health issues. It’s almost like we want to say we’re helping people but just can’t make the leap to actually doing it. Sure, treatments are available for those of us unfortunate enough to have an imperfect brain. We have pills and therapies but it’s just not good enough. Countless people are suffering and they’re being ignored or treated incorrectly. There’s a ludicrous amount of discrimination against those with a mental illness, and that’s fucking disgraceful.

I think you can tell I have fairly strong feelings on this; I am unfortunate (or fortunate depending on how I’m feeling) enough to have bipolar disorder. I have been affected by some of the issues to be discussed in this article, or at least have a good deal of knowledge on them. Now I hope you can forgive the short tirade that was the first paragraph and we can explore the issues of mental health and human rights.

Seemingly, best way to start this analysis is to explore the current treatments available for those affected by a mental illness. I will then compare these to treatments available in the early part of the last century, when mental illnesses were much less accepted. In my experience, the treatments available for mental health issues in the UK range from CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), to drug treatments and hospital stays. CBT aims to change the way we think to adjust our behaviour to better cope with dysfunctional emotions. This is done through a set of goals and a systematic approach. Drug treatments deal, very generally, in raising mood, lowering mood, stabilising mood and preventing psychosis. Of course, this isn’t exhaustive to all mental health drug treatments. Hospital treatment is administered to monitor a patient further and to ensure that they keep to their treatment.

Sounds pretty reasonable right? It is, but these treatment options assume that a doctor hasn’t determined that you are a threat to yourself and anyone around you; this is where things get a bit hairy. This is the perfect time to talk about some of the older and more barbaric treatments. We are all familiar with the insane or lunatic asylum, once upon a time these existed but as of the 19th century they were replaced by centres of moral treatment of the ‘insane’. The Quakers led the way in this regard, founding the York Retreat in 1796, to treat using talk, rest and manual work.

There was still a long way to go though. The Lunacy Act of 1845 finally changed the status of the mentally ill to patients who require treatment, hard to consider that before they were regarded as less than people. Following this, in England and other industrialized countries, asylums became more regulated therefore helping to improve patient treatment. However, the 20th century brought about some of the worst treatments yet, such as insulin shock therapy, electro-convulsive therapy and the lobotomy. In the 1930s and beyond many people were forced into treatment, into asylums to be kept away from society and subjected to horrific procedures. The asylums were without doubt better than what came before, but the image of these still remains – the film Shutter Island plays on our preconceived notion of the terror of asylums.

Thankfully these treatments were later replaced with drug treatments or other less invasive treatments, but not everywhere in the world, and many are still forced into treatment. The 1983 Mental Health Act introduced detention of people for their own safety and that of others, generally known as being ‘sectioned’. It requires the signatures of two doctors and an approved mental health professional. The assessment period lasts 28 days but after this you will continue to be detained up to 6 months until re-assessed, and following this you could be detained indefinitely. Whilst you are sectioned you can’t vote, you can’t leave the hospital and you can be forced to take medication. Of course, all of this can be done against your will.

As you can clearly see, it has been a rocky road towards fair treatment. You may, though, want to know exactly which of the tenants of the human rights act have been or are still being interfered with. The right to life has been broken along side the prohibition of torture and degrading treatment. Freedom is directly interfered with, the right to liberty, of thought and expression and the right to privacy. Discrimination is ever present too, most often because people fear what they don’t understand, or because the media has convinced them that mental disorders are dangerous. This makes it extremely arduous from those suffering to ask for help, and when you are already going through hell that’s the last thing you need.

Several organisations such as Mind and WHO (World Health Organisation) are campaigning for better mental health services. It is estimated that over 500 million people around the world are affected with mental illness and this number will only rise if no action is taken. Mental illness affects all aspects of your life and in some countries the deprived are stigmatized even worse than they might be in the UK. Good health is important for all of us, and this must extend to mental health. WHO and Mind are approaching this problem by educating people and encouraging fairer treatment.

Despite all the progress that has been made we still see barbaric treatment. Only a couple of weeks ago on November 27th, a 16-year-old girl was detained in a police cell after being sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983. This was because there were no beds available on the NHS. As terrible as the 1983 Act is, if you are to be cared for under by the NHS, a police cell is not the place to do it. Prior to this, she was at Torbay Hospital but was removed due to a “breach of peace”. Apparently a cell is considered to be a place of safety – I’m not sure how true that is if you are going through a mental health crisis.

As we can clearly see the treatment of the mentally ill has come a long way but that’s not to say that their human rights aren’t still being abused. The disparity in treatment and discrimination of mental health issues are glaring problems that are being dealt with, but maybe not fast enough.


Sam McMaster


Feature Image: The Drum

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