Mental Health (Racism)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 9th November 2001.

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Photo of Ms Helen Clark Ms Helen Clark Labour, Peterborough 2:30 pm, 9th November 2001

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important subject. I became involved in it due to the tragic death of a constituent who was a patient in the Norvic secure unit in Norwich. I should like to acknowledge the work of my hon. Friend Dr. Gibson in pursuing the case and the issues it raises.

David Bennett—"Rocky" as he was known to his friends and family—was certified dead in the early hours of Saturday 31 October 1998, after being restrained and held down by at least three, possibly five, staff for 25 minutes.

David's sister, Dr. Joanna Bennett—a lecturer in mental health—her legal representatives from the organisation Inquest, my hon. Friend and I have had a series of meetings with Ministers and officials at the Department of Health in the past three years, the most recent of which was held this September.

We have consistently stressed the need for a public inquiry as the most appropriate means to investigate all the circumstances of David's death in a way that will highlight the more general issues and the occurrence of similar cases in the mental health services.

The Minister was generous with her time and listened sympathetically. In her subsequent letter, she confirmed a number of the steps that the Department will take, offering Dr. Bennett considerable input into an inquiry, which will have a broad remit but will not be a full public inquiry. Only parts of the inquiry will be public, over which the chairman will have discretion.

Although grateful for such progress as has been made, David's family, through their representatives, have expressed a number of reservations about those proposals, especially about which issues will be heard in public. They naturally think, as I do, that racism should be one of them, as should be the use of control and restraint. There are other concerns about the membership of the inquiry panel; how the results of the inquiry will be made public; and how they will be fed into future policy and practice.

Dr. Bennett has also stated her concern that the black and minority ethnic mental health strategy lacks definition, especially in its use of terms such as "culturally appropriate non-drug therapy" or "culturally sensitive". Such terms are hard to put into practice and do not therefore lead to real changes for service users. The strategy group has not adequately consulted black service users, providers and families, and so may be unsupported by key stakeholders.

An inquest into David's death was finally held in May this year, and it returned a verdict of accidental death, aggravated by neglect. The coroner, William Armstrong—a specialist in mental health—took great pains to ensure that the circumstances surrounding David's death were explored in depth and made public a number of recommendations that he felt the whole NHS should take on board.

Of particular relevance to this debate is the fact that he stated that many NHS trusts do not take racism seriously and that all trusts should have a written and active policy on dealing with racial abuse, which the Norwich trust has now addressed.

It has been established that David was racially abused by other patients on several occasions before the incident that caused his death—there was no indication of that being addressed by staff—and that he wrote a letter to the ward manager suggesting that more black staff should be employed at the clinic, as there was a significant number of black patients. He complained to the family that he felt he was being treated unfairly because he was black, and he told staff that he felt white people were treated better.

The trust's internal inquiry identified a case in which a member of staff had racially abused another patient, and an incident of racial abuse against Rocky by another patient started the chain of events that resulted in his death.

William Armstrong said:

"There seemed to have been a feeling that here was a man who was big, black and dangerous, would always be big, black and dangerous and would not respond to medication."

As he also noted, David had the advantage of a family who were very caring and well informed about mental health issues.

The recommendations following the inquest reflect many of those following previous inquests and inquiries. For example, 10 years ago, following the inquiry into the deaths of three other black men at Broadmoor hospital, similar recommendations regarding medication, the use of restraint and racism were made.

The organisation Inquest has drawn national and international attention to the disproportionate number of deaths of black people in custody following the use of force or gross medical neglect. Following deaths in police and prison custody, there have been detailed coroners' recommendations on the use of restraint and the dangers of positional asphyxia, yet prone restraint continues to be used in other settings, including psychiatric settings, without regard to the potential dangers.

In February, the report of the ethnic issues project group in the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which it kindly sent to me, stated:

"African-Caribbean individuals are over-represented among admissions to psychiatric hospitals, especially as compulsorily detained patients. Various reports have shown that"— such patients—

"on the whole receive a more coercive spectrum of care. Among offender patients, African-Caribbean men were 26 times more likely than white men to be detained on criminal sections."

It also cites research that suggests that psychiatrists tend to overpredict dangerousness in black people, and that such bias leads to a more restrictive outcome.

I am grateful to MIND for the information in a 1997 study called "The Black Experience of Detention under the Civil Sections of the Mental Health Act". It shows that more than 75 per cent. of professionals from all agencies interviewed felt that black clients were more likely than white clients to be perceived as dangerous, and black patients were twice as likely as white patients to be detained on a longer section 3 order. White patients were more likely to be on the shorter section 2 orders.

The research also showed that 85 per cent. of black people were being given medication, compared with 72 per cent. of the white group; 61 per cent. of the black group were being given at least two types of drug, compared with 39 per cent. of the white group; and 35 per cent. of the black group were in receipt of three types of drug, while that was true for 22 per cent. of the white group.

I understand that evidence of racial inequality in mental health services has been available for 20 or even 30 years. All this together shows that black people are more likely than whites to be removed by the police to a place of safety under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983; retained in hospital under sections 2,3 and 4 of the Act; diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia or another form of psychotic illness; detained in locked wards of psychiatric hospitals; and given higher doses of medication.

The research also shows that black people are less likely than white people to receive appropriate and acceptable diagnosis of, or treatment for, possible mental illness at an early stage, and to receive treatments such as psychotherapy or counselling.

There is no legal requirement to report sudden deaths in custody to a central body, but I am told that in the past 10 years there have been at least 12 cases of black people with diagnosed mental health problems who have died in this tragic way—12 lives lost which, with more appropriate treatment in the widest sense, might have been saved.

Last year the Health Committee report on the provision of mental health services made the following recommendations. The Department of Health's requirement that all NHS trust boards should undertake training on management of diversity should be expanded, so that all front-line NHS staff receive training on race awareness. All educational bodies providing pre- qualification training to health professionals should be required to include training on cultural and racial issues as part of their curriculum. All NHS trusts should designate a board member to take the lead on issues of race and culture within their trust and to ensure that active policies are in place to champion the needs of the ethnic minority groups in their areas. The Department of Health should ensure that trusts have access to a comprehensive network of interpreting services, if necessary providing grants to the voluntary sector to enable the services to be developed. Priority should be given to early intervention services, such as providing easy access to counselling.

The Health Committee believes that it is crucial that users and carers are involved in all aspects of service delivery, and that user involvement in setting the outcomes that services aim to achieve should be central to service planning. As that would be a new way of working for many professionals, the Committee recommends that both pre-and post-qualification training of all health and social care professionals should include structured input from users as part of the national programme.

All mental health service providers need to acknowledge the importance of social factors, including race. They need to understand how what MIND calls "mental distress" is differently experienced and expressed in different cultures, and that prevailing white, western concepts are not always appropriate to understanding the behaviour of patients.

I was glad to read that the Royal College of Psychiatrists is undertaking an independent review of race equality issues, to identify and tackle institutional racism in its structures, policies and procedures. Indeed, I note that it is the first medical royal college to do so. The report to which I referred states that

"all patients have the right to equal access to services, that is, services must be equivalent not necessarily the same" since the needs of a diverse population are likely to be equally diverse.

A national expert on ethnicity and mental health, Professor Sashidharan of Birmingham university, has consistently demonstrated the need to tackle inequalities in mental health services. In his paper on institutional racism in British psychiatry, he says that

"despite efforts . . . to provide ethnically sensitive . . . services, the overall experiences . . . by black and south Asian people remain largely negative."

He suggests that the practical emphasis placed on improving services has distracted attention from the more fundamental task of addressing racism within mental health services. To achieve real change, we need to understand how the procedures and practices of those services affect black people's experiences of mental health care and the outcomes of treatment; therefore we must closely examine the experience of which David Bennett provides a tragic example.

I am aware that I am skating over many topics that require detailed consideration, but time is short, so today I have focused on the extent and the seriousness of the problems that policy makers and practitioners must resolve if they are to end the pernicious effects of racism in mental health policy and practice. It is because those problems are so pervasive and so serious that the Bennett family and those of us who have worked with them continue to say that a full public inquiry is the best way in which to collect and examine the evidence and arrive at proper evidence-based recommendations for future policy and practice, which can then be implemented nationwide.