Charity warns government must act to stop ongoing harm on 40th anniversary of Mental Health Act

09 May 2023

The government must urgently enact the new bill to reform the Mental Health Act to prevent ongoing harm to people living with mental illness, Rethink Mental Illness has said on the 40th anniversary of the legislation.

The Mental Health Act 1983 is the legislation which allows for people to be detained and treated without their consent when they are unwell and in crisis.

Concerns have long been raised that the Mental Health Act isn’t fit for purpose. In previous research, people have told Rethink Mental Illness that they were not shown kindness or provided with dignity under the Act, and that they had little say in their care and treatment.

There is also deeply concerning racial inequality in the use of the Act, with Black people four times more likely to be detained than white people according to NHS figures.

Today (9 May) marks 40 years since the Mental Health Act was given royal assent. The government published a draft Mental Health Bill last year, setting out reforms to the current system. A joint committee was established, publishing its recommendations for strengthening the Bill in January this year. But there haven’t yet been any indications from the government when it will introduce the revised bill into parliament.

Rebecca, 34, Chelmsford, who experiences an eating disorder, said: “During one admission, I was placed on nil by mouth, and wasn’t even allowed to drink water. I didn't wash at all for two weeks, until my mum complained and the staff started to bring soap and water to my bed. I wasn't informed of my right to see an advocate either; it was only after a week or so when my mum had looked into this for me. But then the staff tried to stop me being able to see him, because they said he didn't have my best interests at heart. The other time I was admitted under the Mental Health Act, they would often use the fact that I was sectioned as a threat. If they found me trying to hide food, then they would force-feed me triple the quantity.

“I wanted to be treated as an individual, not just someone with an eating disorder. I wanted to be involved in decisions regarding my care, not treated like a naughty child who needs to be punished. The way I was treated made recovery impossible. I have become very distrustful of healthcare professionals and it now takes a very long time for me to open up and engage.”

Mark Winstanley, Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said: “Though these laws are vital in protecting lives, there have been concerns raised about the Mental Health Act from its very inception, and forty years later, it has never been clearer that it is unfit-for-purpose. Rather than enabling compassionate care which takes the needs of each individual experiencing a mental health crisis into account, the current law robs people of a say in their treatment. A right afforded in every other area of healthcare. Rather than protecting an individual so they can begin to recover, the Act often further damages their mental health. And unacceptably, it is Black people who are disproportionately affected under the Act.

“We were pleased to see the government take the important step of publishing its proposed reforms last year. We need this to remain an urgent priority, with new legislation introduced to parliament as soon as possible. With each passing day that the government dithers and delays and the Mental Health Act is not reformed, more people living with mental illness are harmed by this archaic legislation. Just because this harm occurs behind closed doors does not mean it should be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for the government. Thanks to the tireless work of campaigners and supporting organisations over the years, the evidence has been laid out clearly – it is the government’s responsibility now to deliver for people experiencing mental illness and their loved ones.”


Notes to Editors

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About Rethink Mental Illness

No matter how bad things are, we can help people severely affected by mental illness to improve their lives. We’re Rethink Mental Illness, a leading charity provider of mental health services in England. 

  • We support tens of thousands of people through our groups, services and advice and information. 
  • We train employees, employers and members of the public on how best to support someone affected by mental illness. 
  • We campaign for the rights of people living with mental illness and their carers. 

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