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The changes to the Mental Health Act are great for autistic people, but it’s not enough

TW: This post mentions institutional abuse of disabled people.

Recently, it was announced that the Mental Health Act would be facing some landmark reforms in order to tackle its discriminatory overuse against some of the most vulnerable groups in society.

The law effectively gives authorities the power to detain a mentally unwell person – whether they want to be detained or not – if they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

However, in the forty years this statute has been in effect, it has been grossly weaponised and abused, with those in power using it as a means of control rather as a means to help those who need it.

The use of the Mental Health Act to detain people has increasingly spun out of control this millennia, with NHS data showing that between 2005/2006 and 2015/16, the average number of those being involuntarily detained had increased by 40%.

 In 2019/2020 alone, which also marked a timeframe of great pain and disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were at least 50,893 people detained.

In its current state, the law – which has been in place for nearly 40 years – means that someone having autism and a learning disability alone is reason enough to detain them under the Mental Health Act.

This has led to a disturbing trend wherein people on the spectrum can be detained solely on the basis that someone in power deems them to be “too autistic” or “too dangerous” to function in society.

You might think (or hope) that barbaric asylums with wicked nurses and mistreated patients are confined to the pages of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

This golden ticket of human rights abuse means that now, over 2,000 autistic people are trapped in nightmarish institutes where, as investigative reporters have uncovered, they are regularly slapped, restrained, mocked, taunted and even dragged into showers fully clothed.

Although it is vitally important for autistic people to get the help they need, it is clear that over time, this intention has eroded into nothing more than systematic human rights abuse, with authorities taking advantage of people’s autism diagnoses to keep them in their grasp.

The overuse of patients’ autism diagnoses as an excuse to deem them a modern-day Quasimodo is evident if we consider recent analysis of 2019 NHS data by Sky News. They found that of the 2,250 people who are currently detained due to their learning disability, at least 635 of those would be able to live in a community-based care as opposed to the isolated conditions they face now.

With numbers like this, it is clear that even with the upcoming amendments of the Mental Health Act, which will make it so people cannot be sectioned solely due to their autism, it may well take another 40 years for the damage these provisions have caused to be undone.

Further to this, under the proposed changes, people with autism will need to be diagnosed with at least one other mental health condition before they can be sectioned.

Although at first appearance this looks like it will solve the problem of disproportionate sectioning autistic people, what we are failing to take into account is the fact that it is extremely common for people to have co-morbidity – in other words, it is common for people to be diagnosed with autism in conjunction with a mental health condition like OCD or depression.

With Mind reporting that those with autism are more likely to experience mental health problems than the general population, and a recent study showing that nearly one in three people on the spectrum suffer with mental health issues, who’s to say that this new law will make a tangible difference?

Given the high level of mental health issues in people with autism, what is there in the amended Mental Health Act that will prevent them from being detained against their will?

Ultimately, while this change in the Mental Health Act is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go if we want to undo the damage inflicted on autistic people in the past and prevent more discriminatory sectionings happening again in the future.

The changes in the White Paper are positive, but we need to make it clear before the Mental Health Bill comes to fruition next year that autistic people need more.

They deserve more. 

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