Debating the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill

13. New Members of Parliament ask questions

Yesterday there was a debate about Mental Health in the House of Commons. Although I was at work and couldn’t follow it ‘live’ but information garnered – mostly from my Twitter feed – was on the whole positive.

This was a chance for specific discussions about mental health to be discussed by our legislative assembly in an open manner and some MPs took the opportunity to talk about their own histories of mental illness.

The debate took place in the context of a Private Member’s Bill debate where  the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill  – introduced earlier in this Parliamentary Session (after an abortive attempt last year) into the  House of Lords by Lord Dennis Stevenson and co-sponsored by Charles Walker MP , would cover four distinct and remaining discriminatory provisions in our current legal framework. It was introduced to the House of Commons by Gavin Barwell MP who ‘won’ one of the ‘Private Member’s Bill’ spots in the Parliamentary Session.

The provisions as Barwell described them himself in his speech are

To repeal Section 141 of The Mental Health Act 1983, under which a member of the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Irish Assembly automatically loses their seat if they are detained under the Act for more than six months. There is no equivalent provision to remove an MP if they suffer from a physical illness (e.g. a serious stroke or cancer) that affects their ability to perform their role. Furthermore, a person who lacks mental capacity as defined by the Mental Capacity Act 2005 may be detained for up to 12 months and wouldn’t lose their seat.

To amend The Juries Act 1974to significantly reduce and better define who is ineligible for jury service. At the moment, the Act says that “mentally disordered persons” are ineligible. The definition of a mentally disordered person is extremely wide and includes people who manage their mental health condition via a prescription from their GP or counselling from a psychiatrist, thereby eliminating all sorts of people who would make excellent jurors. Only 2% tick the box exempting them from jury service on mental health grounds – statistically speaking many more should, so not only is the law discriminatory but it is also ineffective. Of course, someone on trial has a right to be confident that the jury is of sound mind. This Bill would seek to better define those who should be ineligible – people who have been detained under the Mental Health Act 2003, people who have voluntarily admitted themselves to hospital to seek treatment, people under guardianship or subject to a Community Treatment Order and people who lack capacity within the Mental Capacity Act 2005 – thereby making it more likely they will identify themselves correctly.

To amend The Companies (Model Articles) Regulations 2008so that a person no longer ceases to be a director of a public or private company purely by reason of their mental health. All companies are required by statute to have articles of association. The model articles operate where a company has failed to draw up its own articles and many companies who do draw up their own include most or all of the model articles. The model articles include a provision that a person ceases to be a director if a registered medical practitioner who is treating that person gives a written opinion to the company stating that that person has become physically or mentally incapable of acting as a director and may remain so for more than three months – in other words, the correct test of capacity. But there is then a totally unnecessary additional provision relating to a person’s mental health.

• To amend The School Governance (Constitution) (England) Regulations 2007 so that those detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 would no longer be disqualified from holding office as school governors. Clearly while someone is detained they will be unable to attend governors’ meetings but this may only be for a very short term and if so there is no reason why they shouldn’t resume the role.

Barwell makes the point that there is no equivalence of consideration between mental and physical health concerns in relation to recovery and this feeds into the broader stigma associated with mental health.

I suspect the stigma is related to fear about the ‘unknown’. Speaking out and identifying periods of needing support with mental health should not be something that is considered differently from other physical health needs but  there is still, I think, in some contexts, an element of seeing a mental illness as a defect of character.

If you ‘pulled your socks up’ you could see yourself through the period of depression. If you thought more logically, you would know that your anxiety isn’t rational. These are some of the common perceptions that i have come across. They can be enormously damaging as can any shift of the ‘blame’ narrative when trying to push the move towards recovery. Health – physical and mental – is something enormously personal to us. I tend to think that the two can’t be separated either. Just as we accept that people may respond differently physiologically to ‘treatment’ so we have to more broadly accept and understand there are different responses psychologically to ‘treatment’.

I’m glad this Bill looks like moving towards statute – it’s long overdue and while there is so much more that needs to be done in terms of challenging stigma – breaking down legislative and institutional barriers is a very key part to challenging and addressing stigma more broadly in the communities in which we live.

pic by UK Parliament Flickr