The Mental Health Act 1983 (the “Act”) has come under scrutiny in recent years for the lack of autonomy detained patients receive. This is a particularly problematic area as an overly paternalistic approach towards mentally ill patients seems particularly old fashioned. There have also been concerns about the treatment of particularly vulnerable patients and a disregard for the specific needs of groups such as BAME patients, people with learning difficulties, and women.
Young women are at particularly high risk of developing mental health issues, with more than a quarter of women aged 16-24 suffering from a common mental disorder. Hospitals are now treating nearly twice as many girls for self-harm today as they were in 1997. The link between sexual trauma and resulting poor mental health cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, it is a known fact that women are particularly prone to sexual exploitation and more than half of women with mental health problems have experienced abuse.
As trauma plays such a part in why so many women are detained under the Act, it would make sense that their treatment was tailored to a trauma-based approach. Trauma-informed approaches aim to reduce the risk of re-traumatisation. However, under the Act, a patient may be detained and treated against their will which can undermine the recovery of trauma victims and sometimes make matters worse. Despite many women in detention being survivors of abuse, the evidence suggests that patients are not asked about this when detained and the issue of trauma is not dealt with sensitively. This leads to potentially triggering situations such as women who have been abused by men being observed by male nurses and being restrained in ways which can re-traumatise them.
To combat these issues faced by many vulnerable women, more investment in both community and in-patient services is needed. A shift in culture in mental health law which considers and responds to the specific needs of abused women and girls is vital. This would enable detention under the Act to become an empowering opportunity for growth, rather than risking further traumatisation.
Written by Francesca Du Casse