Socialist Worker

Racism and the NHS: Treated as 'a lesser being'

Judy Cox explains how a shocking death led to revelations of racism in the mental health services

Issue No. 1888

David 'Rocky' Bennett was a talented drummer who loved football. He had two children. Those who knew him called him a 'lovely man'. But Rocky was just 38 when he died on 30 October 1998. He died in a psychiatric clinic in Norwich after four nurses held him face down for nearly half an hour.

Now an explosive report into his death has exposed the 'festering abscess' of racism in the NHS. It says on the night he died Rocky was treated as 'a lesser being' and was restrained with 'excessive force'. Rocky was being treated for schizophrenia. Young Afro-Caribbean men like Rocky are ten times more likely than average to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. His sister, Dr Joanna Bennett, herself a mental health professional, said, 'He became very disillusioned because he felt he was slowly becoming institutionalised, despite his protests.

'He would only ever be discharged once marked symptom-free – but those symptoms were never diagnosed. All he felt, and all we saw, was the prescription of more drugs.' Rocky got into an argument with another patient who racially abused him. Staff decided to move Rocky, who resisted and was restrained.

It was not that the nurses were themselves racists. Some staff were kind, taking Rocky to football matches. But they were unaware of the 'corrosive and cumulative effect of racist abuse upon a black patient', the report found. They saw black patients as 'more aggressive, alarming, dangerous and difficult to treat'.

The racism did not stop with Rocky's death. His family were treated 'inhumanely'. Rocky had been dead for 24 hours before his family was even informed. Dr Joanna Bennett said of her brother, 'He was racially abused on several occasions by other patients. He was always seen as the problem and, certainly on the night he died, he was definitely the one who was punished, even though he was the one who was racially abused and assaulted. Like many black men, he feared he would die in mental health services. Those fears became a reality for my family in 1998. My hope is that this inquiry will prove to be a watershed in the treatment and care of black people using mental health services in the UK.'

Figure it out

Out of 100,000 black people, 28 end up in secure units. Out of 100,000 white people, only four end up in secure units. 51 percent of patients in a London psychiatric hospital were black, but only 17 percent of the population as a whole are black.

An echo of the Macpherson report

'The views of our witnesses were virtually unanimous. Institutional racism is present throughout the NHS. This is a disgrace. Final responsibility lies fairly and squarely with the department of health,' concludes retired judge Sir John Blofeld, author of the report into Rocky's death.

His findings echo those of the Macpherson report which exposed racism in the police force after their botched investigation into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. But New Labour health secretary John Reid is resisting the report's conclusions. His officials think it would be too expensive to retrain staff in safer restraint techniques.

And the government has long covered up evidence of deep rooted racism in mental health services. Rocky Bennett's family had to fight to stop the Department of Health releasing the report into his death on the day of the tuition fees debate, a good day for New Labour to bury bad news.

Just five months ago the government was accused of burying another damning report on racism in mental health services. The author of the report, Inside Out, told the Independent, 'There was an attempt to suppress it. This report will sit on someone's shelf, which makes me sad and angry.'

The report revealed that 'stereotypes influence the diagnosis and treatment which people receive, leading to lack of access to appropriate treatment, assessment and care' for black people, who are more likely than whites to be detained and given a 'liquid cosh' of medication against their will. In the same month the Afiya Trust told the government, 'We have got a crisis on our hands, a public health crisis.

'The fact that there are so many black people represented in the mental health services comes out of poverty and institutional racism. We can't pretend it's not happening-the figures get worse every day.'

In April last year the Commission for Racial Equality reported that the NHS systematically discriminates against black patients. Two years earlier another report, published by the prestigious Sainsbury Centre for mental health, reported that 'for black people, acute care is akin to custodial sentencing.

'Black people are not treated with respect. Their voices are not heard. Black people come into the mental health services too late, when they are already in crisis.' The report details how the police intervene to detain ill black people. One police officer interviewed said, 'There's one thing I feel uncomfortable about. It was an assessment on a woman with a new baby. The psychiatrist asked her several questions that she got right and he got wrong! 'By the end I felt really uncomfortable, manhandling a vulnerable female with a babe in arms. There were about eight people in the room but it was the police who came forward to wrestle with the woman and take the baby.'

A black carer interviewed explained how racist stereotypes influence behaviour, 'I asked my father a thousand times if he was right that 38 police officers went to my brother's flat. 'Now I realise there is a circle of fear. The police may be a lot bigger and a lot stronger, they may have CS gas, baton and the support of the mental health act, but they were afraid of my brother.'

Professor Sashi Sashidharan was part of the team investigating Rocky Bennett's death and other reports. Last week he said, 'As we speak there are hundreds, if not thousands, of black people who are detained in psychiatric facilities in this country whose needs aren't being addressed and many of whom are being treated brutally and punitively.'

NHS workers

Mental health workers speak out

Karen Reissmann is a community psychiatric nurse in Manchester. She spoke to Socialist Worker:

'The Blofeld report was very clear that it was not individual nurses being racist to Rocky Bennett. Rather, they just didn't understand what it is like to be black in Britain today.

'For years research has shown that there is an over-diagnosing of black men as schizophrenic but nothing has been done.

'Black people get much higher doses of medication, even though there is lots of evidence to show that above a certain dose medication doesn't have more effect, but just creates more side effects. 'Racists never say, 'I am being racist.' So black people have to live with suspicions of racism-and all too often they are right.

'This creates stress, doubt and anxiety. 'A black nurse I worked with carried his driving licence with him everywhere. 'To some that might look paranoid, but he drove a nice car and was always being stopped by the police so it was sensible.'

Jenny Daniells works in a mental health unit in south London. She told Socialist Worker, 'You walk into any secure mental health unit in London and it will be full of young black men – it's shocking. 'Black people suffer from racism, as well as poverty and alienation.

'A lot of mental health problems are rooted in people having no control over their lives and that powerlessness can be worse for black people.

'Black people who get ill have greater problems getting help than white people. Their first contact with mental health services may be being picked up by the police for behaving oddly. Lots of health workers are brilliant. They fight to give the best treatment despite underfunding and huge workloads. 'But there is a big subjective aspect to diagnosing mental health. People can have stereotyped views that black men are threatening, or dangerous, or more into drugs and that affects how they are diagnosed and treated. Racism makes people ill, and it stops them getting the treatment they need. Thousands of people with real potential are just rotting in secure units.'

Many others have died

Several other black men have died violently while in the care of the authorities:

  • Mikey Powell: died in 2003 after being arrested by police. Mikey's mother first called the police when she saw Mikey acting strangely.
  • Roger Sylvester: arrested by police after being seen naked, rolling on the ground and banging at doors in 1999. He died at a psychiatric unit while in the custody of five police officers.
  • Peter San Pedro: arrested after running in front of traffic and sprayed with CS gas. Later released to die of injuries he had sustained.
  • Darren Baverstock: died in 1997 when the police were called to help medical services restrain him after he took an overdose.
  • Hoosen Anbeeluck: became 'agitated' when a hospital doctor told him he had cancer in 1998. The police were called. Hoosen was restrained, collapsed and died.

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Article information

Sat 14 Feb 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1888
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