Socialist Worker

New Labour targets the ill

by MARJORIE WALLACE, director of the charity SANE, interviewed
Issue No. 1813

THE GOVERNMENT recently published a draft bill that proposes tough new laws for people with mental health problems. The measures include giving psychiatrists new powers to force people in the community to undergo compulsory treatment such as injections.

There are also proposals to detain those categorised as having 'severe personality disorders' without trial even if they haven't committed a crime. The proposals have created widespread anger. A group of 50 organisations have joined together in the Mental Health Alliance to oppose the plans.

Marjorie Wallace, director of leading mental health charity SANE, spoke to Socialist Worker about the government's plans and the treatment of mentally ill people in Britain today.

'There is a need to update the 1983 Mental Health Act. But we are concerned, as are the rest of the groups in the Mental Health Alliance, about the government's draft bill. People are very afraid that there will be compulsion. We've had many calls from people who are frightened about what will happen to them.

The bill has created a climate of apprehension, which is possibly going to drive people away from seeking help. The government must take account of the views and the fears of the users of mental health services. We were assured there would be no compulsory treatment.

You can't leave people in the community and force them to take what is often very distressing medication. Compulsion is being looked at in the wrong way. The compulsion is being put on the person who has the illness. But it should be put on the services if they fail in their duty of care.

People are sometimes left waiting for up to nine months or longer to see a specialist, and then they just get to see the specialist for a few minutes. If the compulsion was put on the system, then we wouldn't need to detain people. People are only detained because they've been allowed to get to the stage where they are too ill to cope.

We've been very disappointed since Labour was elected five years ago. They said mental health would be a greater priority. Frank Dobson said the government would aim for 'safe, sound and supportive' services.

Then there were all the announcements about new money and resources. Yet when we listen to our callers we don't know where this money has gone. The psychiatrists I've spoken to have certainly not seen this promised money. They have still got overcrowded wards, health teams that are almost at breakdown point and they are still coping with impossible circumstances. Many acute hospital wards are overcrowded and dilapidated.

We recently conducted a survey of psychiatrists and we found that 60 percent said inpatient hospital care had deteriorated or hadn't changed. Some 42 percent said they thought that community care either had deteriorated or hadn't changed. Hospitals have to contend with up to 14 patients for every ten beds.

The crisis is worse because many people with mental illness receive inadequate care in prison or are inappropriately detained in high security hospitals. I recently revisited many services and areas I had visited 15 years ago. I was absolutely shocked to see how little improvement there had been. There are fewer mentally ill people on the streets and there are some good hostels.

But as for the core services, for the person who's ill and needs care, it is absolutely dreadful. People are forced into little crowded units. The activities have all been run down, and they have very little occupational therapy. At least people used to have the opportunity of education. Now the service is so fragmented people are getting very little that is positive and creative. Closing big psychiatric hospitals has robbed the mentally ill of the only inheritance they had.

There was a lot wrong with these hospitals. But it is a disgrace that only 3 percent of the sale of the land and buildings has gone back into the health service. We don't know how much of that 3 percent has gone to services for mental health. With that money they could have built centres around the old hospitals. The old hospitals are just lying wasted, and have been bought up by property developers, while mentally ill people are given no space.'

Protest against New Labour's mental health bill. Saturday 14 September, Whitehall Place, London. March to rally in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park.

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Article information

Sat 17 Aug 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1813
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