The mental health bill fiasco is a classic dilemma of public protection versus human rightsby Sophie Petit-Zeman / May 20, 2006 / Leave a comment
Half a mile from where I live, a mentally ill man recently killed a retired couple in their home. Daniel Gonzalez’s family had made more than 100 unanswered pleas to get help for him. He was apparently treatable, but, reluctant to engage with services that didn’t try hard enough to engage with him, spiralled into drug abuse and beyond. There are countless stories of people in distress, often supported by despairing carers, failing to get help, but the outcome in Gonzalez’s case was highly unusual: he harmed people he didn’t know. If they harm at all, such people far more often harm themselves than others. Gonzalez and his victims were failed not by mental health law, which makes it clear that pleas for help must be met, but by individuals and services failing to implement it.
That does not prevent such cases being viewed, particularly in the media, as evidence that something legislative needs to be done. And this highlights an uncomfortable distinction, already enshrined in the 1983 Mental Health Act, between mental and physical illness. Bird flu might conceivably change this, but at the moment no law can force people with contagious physical illness to be treated for their own sake or that of others. Not so with the minefield of mental health legislation, which exists to do precisely that.
This minefield has just seen an eight-year, £8m struggle over the new draft mental health bill come to a messy end. The attempt to rewrite mental health law began with an earlier individual case; a tragic event which re-enforced in the public mind the link between mental illness and violence. Michael Stone, convicted in 1996 for killing Lin and Megan Russell, had a dangerous, severe personality disorder, but could not be held under mental health legislation because he was considered untreatable. The proposed new bill abandoned this criterion, so that people like Stone could be deprived of their liberty before they offended—to protect the public. If it had been merely a public protection bill, it might conceivably have been coherent. In this case, the very few mentally ill people who are genuinely dangerous might more easily be detained—although the many more who aren’t would also face losing their liberty. Such a bill would have risked scooping up people with learning disabilities alongside those with mental illness. It would have been draconian, depriving people of their liberty in order to…