Why black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people

Credit: Nsey Benajah/Upsplash

The figures are shocking. If you are black and live in the UK, you are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than a white person and over 10 times more likely to be subject to a Community Treatment Order.

It's just one of the reasons why the Act, written 39 years ago, is so out of date. 

Under its provisions, patients can be detained or “sectioned” if they are believed to be a risk to themselves or others. 

But a government overhaul aims to make the system less discriminatory, by offering more tailored support to people from diverse backgrounds alongside more control for anyone facing a mental health crisis. 

It’s the result of an independent review into the Act and has been widely welcomed by mental health charities.

Mark Winstanley, CEO of Rethink Mental Illness, thinks it’s a hugely significant milestone. 

“Specifically, we're pleased to see a clear emphasis on improving outcomes for the disproportionately high number of black people and people from other ethnic minorities who are detained under the Act,” he said. 

“We're also pleased with increased patient involvement in treatment plans and improved carer and family involvement.”

For Georgi, who was hospitalised for four years with anorexia at the age of 17, giving more control to patients and their families is vital.

Georgi says being detained under the Mental Health Act was the most traumatic experience of her life.

She describes being detained under the Mental Health Act as the most traumatic experience of her life and doesn’t want anyone to go through what she did. 

She said: “My autonomy over my own life and treatment was taken away.

"My parent’s concerns were consistently ignored, and I was repeatedly restrained and injected with medication that I did not need nor want.”

Georgi isn’t alone.

Three decades ago, over ninety percent of patients in the UK’s psychiatric units were there because they chose to be.

But according to the mental health charity SANE, today almost 50% have had to be deprived of their liberty, either because they have become too ill or because there is no other treatment option available. 

A woman runs past a mural in Belfast. Credit: PA

For a government that promised to put mental health on a par with NHS treatment for physical ailments, its a sobering reminder of just how ill patients need to get sometimes, before care is forthcoming. 

Sarah Hughes, Chief Executive at the Centre for Mental Health, said: “Every year, the number of people who are sectioned grows.

"While we know this can save lives, the use of coercion can also cause lasting trauma and distress. And we have known for too long that black people are subjected to much higher levels of coercion at every stage of the system. It is time for this to change.”

The Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has promised to reform the Mental Health Act as one of his party’s core manifesto commitments.

He said: “These reforms will rightly see people not just as patients, but as individuals, with rights, preferences, and expertise, who are able to rely on a system which supports them and only intervenes proportionately.”

“This will give people more autonomy over their care and will tackle disparities for all who access services, in particular for people from minority ethnic backgrounds.”

Digital billboard goes on display in Piccadilly Circus during Loneliness Awareness Week. Credit: PA

Perhaps as a society, we were already starting to think differently about mental heath, a process the pandemic has accelerated.

Redesigning the Act has been a far slower process and the government will still have to consult on the changes.

But today’s White Paper should start the process of bringing the UK’s mental heath care into the twenty first century. 

If you or someone you know if struggling with your mental health, you can get help here:

  • Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year, by calling 116 123. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org

  • Rethink Mental Illness offer practical advice and information for anyone affected by mental health problems on a wide range of topics including treatment, support and care. Phone 0300 5000 927 (Mon-Fri 9.30am-4pm) or visit rethink.org

  • Campaign Against Living Miserably's (CALM) helpline and webchat are open from 5pm until midnight, 365 days a year. Call CALM on 0800 58 58 58 or chat to their trained helpline staff onlineNo matter who you are or what you're going through, it's free, anonymous and confidential.