Proposals for better care and monitoring of the use of force on patients with mental health issues look to end ‘unconscious bias’ against young black men
Steve Reed OBE could soon claim to be behind the first piece of legislation introduced by a Labour MP since 2010, after Seni’s Law yesterday completed the committee stage at the House of Commons.
The Mental Health (Use of Force) Bill was brought forward as a private member’s bill by Reed, the MP for Croydon North, in a response to the death under restraint of a 23-year-old mental health patient, Seni Lewis, in 2010. With cross-party support evident in the committee rooms in parliament yesterday, the Bill will get a third reading in the Commons later this year.
Seni’s Law is an effort to avoid individuals’ personal crisis turning into tragedies.
Seni Lewis was a physically healthy graduate with no prior history of mental illness. His parents found him one Sunday morning in a very agitated state, recognised it as a mental ill health episode and took him to the local hospital. They stayed with him until late evening before going home to rest.
Realising his parents had left, Seni became very anxious. He resisted attempts by hospital staff to restrain him and they called the police. Seni was taken into a seclusion unit by 11 officers, with his arms handcuffed behind his head, his legs in shackles, and held face-down on the floor until he suffered a heart attack. Shortly afterwards, Seni died.
The case was brought to Reed’s attention, as the Lewis family are constituents, and the MP has used the opportunity of the private members’ bill to get the law changed.
“Serious failings by the Crown Prosecution Service and obstruction by the Metropolitan Police meant that no inquest into Seni’s death was held for a further seven years. It took a long campaign and questions in Parliament to get the inquest opened. Having lost their son, Seni’s distraught parents were left to fight the state simply to find out what had happened,” Reed wrote recently.
“When the Coroner’s verdict finally came in June 2017 it was damning. It found that Seni had been subject to ‘prolonged disproportionate and unreasonable’ restraint. Training for police and hospital staff was inadequate, responsibilities were unclear, medical staff failed to respond to the medical emergency and the hospital was failing to follow its own policies on patient safety. The Coroner warned that without change further deaths could occur.”
According to Mind, the mental health charity, there have been 13 face-down restraint-related deaths since 1998 and more than 1,000 physical injuries. Inquests going back over two decades have repeatedly pointed to failings that have never been corrected.
“Healthcare staff and police do a challenging job and sometimes need to make difficult decisions very quickly, but there are ways to prevent the need for force,” according to Geoff Heyes, a policy and campaigns manager at Mind.
“For example, by providing well-staffed, therapeutic ward environments and using techniques to gently calm people down if they become agitated or upset.
“We welcome this Bill which will increase transparency and accountability and is an important step towards making safer environments for everyone experiencing a mental health crisis.”
From the Mind statistics, it is apparent that young black men are disproportionately the victims of death in restraint. “This raises fears of unconscious bias, with anecdotal evidence linking their deaths to assumptions about young black men, drugs, psychosis and violence,” Reed wrote on politicshome.com last week.
“But without hard evidence on how, when and why force is used against mental health patients, this is difficult to prove. There are widespread fears in the black community about racial bias in the mental health services.” And while there are official figures for deaths in prison and police custody, there are no statistics kept on mental health custody.
Reed said, “Seni’s Law will require every mental health hospital to keep a record every time restraint is used against a patient. For the first time, we will be able to compare hospitals with each other, and see whether some groups – young black men, women, the disabled – are subject to disproportionate levels of force. Every hospital will have a policy on reducing force, and a named senior manager accountable for its implementation, including training on de-escalation.
“This Bill is a major step towards ensuring mental health patients are treated with care and compassion not cruelty, and that the system learns when things go wrong. It enjoys the support of every professional body, patients’ group and trade union in the mental health sector.
“The Bill is due for its third reading in the House of Commons in June, and with cross-party support could be on the statute books by the end of the year. Nothing can bring Seni Lewis back, but Seni’s Law will make sure no one else suffers the way he did.”
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