The new Mental Health Bill

The new Mental Health Bill is a real winner, isn’t it?—powers to lock up indefinitely anyone who a couple of "experts" and a tribunal reckon may do someone harm in the future! Reminiscent of those KGB "psychiatrists". An avowed purpose of the new Bill is to permit the detention and compulsory "treatment" of those classes of the mentally sick, i.e. those who used to be described as ‘psychopaths’ (although there remain serious doubts whether the term is meaningful), who can’t be detained under the existing legislation because many psychiatric experts don’t believe that their condition is treatable, in the sense of being cured or even simply stabilised to prevent further deterioration. The Bill doesn’t actually use the term ‘psychopath’, and it makes it a condition of detention that the mental condition in question must be capable of being treated, so either it’s now believed that ‘psychopaths’ can be treated after all—in which case they can be sectioned under the existing Mental Health Act; or they can’t be treated, in which case they can’t be detained under the new Bill, either. If the underlying intention of the Bill is to allow ‘psychopaths’—who have committed no offence but have been identified as potentially dangerous to others or themselves in the future—to be ‘treated’ only in the limited sense that they could be so heavily and permanently sedated that they would no longer be dangerous, there’ll be no justification for locking them up in psychiatric or other hospitals where they would be blocking beds that could better be occupied by patients who are treatable in the proper medical sense of the word; and they will have committed no crime or offence, so there’ll be no justification for "punishing" them, e.g. in a prison. So where will they be put? Who will guard them? By what possible right will they be deprived of freedom to live where they like, to drink and eat what they like, to watch what they like on television, or even at the cinema or theatre—assuming that their sedation is not so heavy as to rule out any such conscious activity altogether? How will they be compensated by the state for the loss of earnings caused by their incarceration? The whole thing would be nonsensical if it weren’t so sinister. It will be interesting to see how our elected masters manage to square it with the Human Rights Act and Convention, too: the notes accompanying the Bill assure us that it’s fully compatible. The fact is, surely, that psychiatrists and psychologists, however experienced, are no more able to predict the future behaviour of universally wayward humans, whether mentally sick or not, than anyone else: i.e. not at all. And once faced with a proposal to detain someone as a possible future risk to others, it will be a bold expert who declines to do so, considering the opprobrium that will be heaped on him or her if the person in question subsequently commits a murder or some other violent crime. Signing the detention order and arranging sedation as compulsory treatment will always be the only risk-free course. This could put thousands of perfectly innocent people at risk of indefinite detention. True, the existing Act poses the same risk to some degree, but it’s much reduced by the requirement to show that the mental condition can (and needs to and will) be ‘treated’ in the full medical sense.

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