Mental Health Act 1983 — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 25th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark 1:30 pm, 25th July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered reform of the Mental Health Act 1983.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I thank everyone who has come along to speak on our last day here before the summer recess and in 38° heat—we are used to 38 Degrees in our inboxes, but not in the Chamber. I also thank all the organisations that have supported this debate. In particular, I owe deep thanks to Louise and the whole team at Rethink Mental Illness for supporting me in preparing for the debate, but a huge range of organisations work on this issue day in, day out, in many cases supporting people in very difficult circumstances. They include Agenda, the Mental Health Network, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Young Minds, SANE, the Mental Health Foundation, VoiceAbility, the Centre for Mental Health, the Association of Mental Health Providers, Mind, and Southwark Carers, which is represented here today. I thank you for everything that you do, on a daily basis, to support reform of the Mental Health Act 1983 overall and for what you have done to support this debate specifically. I also thank the individuals with direct experience and their families, friends, carers, supporters and loved ones. Their personal testimony and experience are what is driving the need for change.

The current Mental Health Act came into force in September 1983. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister—what she would make of the current one I do not know, but that is a different issue. Labour had lost the general election that year with the “longest suicide note” in British political history—but luckily we have learned the lessons of the past. The iron curtain was still drawn. It was the year that Kim Jong-un was born. It was the year that my predecessor in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Sir Simon Hughes, was getting started on a 32-year stay, until I won the seat back for my party in 2015. I note that the biggest selling single in 1983 in the UK was Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon”.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, the Mental Health Act is the law in England and Wales that allows someone to be detained and treated for a mental illness without their consent. That is commonly known as sectioning, but for the purposes of today’s debate, I will refer to it as detention. The Act is designed to prevent people experiencing mental health crises from harming themselves or other people, and the Act can be the mechanism that prevents someone from taking their own life. It is hugely valuable when it works. I am sure that everyone here would agree that society and the state should protect the most vulnerable when they are unwell. But the current legislation is decades out of date.

The legislation came into force when I was just four years old, and I had already realised by that point that my life was very different from that of other children. My parents had four children together between 1976 and 1980, but mum then developed schizophrenia—a mental illness that causes muddled thinking or delusional thoughts, and changes in behaviour. The causes of schizophrenia are still very much unknown, but even less was known about the condition in the early ’80s and treatment was rudimentary to say the least. But because of mum’s condition, talking about mental illness has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. That has been the case throughout my family because of our circumstances. It has shaped my life.

Some of my earliest memories are not necessarily the easiest to talk about, but this is one of the earliest memories I have. After mum’s mental health broke down, my parents split up. We stayed with mum initially. She was unable to care for us properly. With the best of intentions, on a cold day when she could not work the heating, she lit a fire in our living room. That fire caused huge damage. The scars from the fire stayed with us literally—physically—because we could not afford to make the necessary changes for some time after that.

Mum kept me out of school, convinced that I was ill; there was no illness. For many years, I was convinced that I had been kept in an incubator after being born, because mum convinced me that I had had lung problems at birth. I found out later that that was not true.

Dad eventually got custody, and the four of us grew up with dad, but on visits to mum, she would be unsupported and unwell. I remember staying over and her giving me a bowl of cereal with what I thought was orange juice on it—the milk was so off that it was orange. But mum had thought that that was sensible; she was just trying to feed us. She did not know, because she was so unwell.

Mum had another son; I have a half-brother called Sebastian. She was unable to look after him because she did not have support. He was initially fostered, but mum’s behaviour became too problematic. I went to see her once and the front door had been broken in. She told me that there had been a burglary, but nothing was missing, and it turned out that the police had had to be called because she had taken Sebastian from the foster carers and they had had to break in to take him back. He was formally adopted at five years old, and I have not seen him since.

It may sound strange or scary to some, but this was my normal; this was my childhood. We are all socialised by our surroundings and families, and the personal situation for me and for many others who grew up in difficult circumstances helps to develop resilience, I think. It has also given me greater empathy, both as a child and now, particularly when I see constituents who are struggling with similar mental health circumstances of their own. I represent a constituency that has a higher prevalence of mental health conditions and psychoses.