Government Announces Overhaul of Mental Health Laws

Reforms will target the Mental Health Act and disproportionate detention of BAME people with acute mental illnesses.

The UK government has unveiled long-awaited plans to overhaul the Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA) and make significant changes to the treatment of mentally ill people in England and Wales.

The MHA white paper is largely based on recommendations made by Sir Simon Wessely’s Independent Review of the Mental Health Act in 2018 and sets out a number of reforms. Chief is the granting of greater choice and autonomy for patients in a mental health crisis and reducing the restrictive usage of the MHA.

In the UK, the MHA is the main piece of legislation that covers the assessment, treatment and rights of people with a mental health disorder. The MHA outlines circumstances in which a person can be detained (or “sectioned”) for their own safety or that of others and treated without their agreement.

Research has found that people from BAME backgrounds are four times more likely to be detained under the MHA relative to population.

Use of the MHA has also increased significantly. In 2015/16, the number of people detained in hospital was 40% up from the same period in 2005/6, and NHS data for England shows that there were at least 50,893 new detentions in 2019/20 – an understatement of the true figure, as not all providers submitted data.

The NHS figures also showed that there were 321 detentions per 100,000 population for black people while there were only 73 detentions per 100,000 for white people.

The proposed reforms will also impose a 28-day time limit to speed up the transfer of prisoners to hospital, which was lauded by justice secretary Robert Buckland.

“Prisons should be places where offenders are punished and rehabilitated, not a holding pen for people whose primary issue is their mental health,” Buckland said. “Keeping people safe must be at the heart of everything this government does, and the reforms announced today will allow us to do this while ensuring offenders still get the treatment their conditions require.”

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