Last year, I spent the first day of summer in a mental health facility. I’d been sectioned after an arrest by the police on a murder charge and detained 12 hours in jail. All apparently for a tweet!(1)
My college sweetheart (my only girlfriend at university) Sarah Napuk committed suicide before finals.(2) Disbelief. Grief. Guilt. These are all feelings Sarah’s family and friends experience at her loss. After more than a decade since her passing, I confess my own feelings of responsibility for her death on Twitter. I did not however expect to be arrested for her murder! Whilst in the custody of the Greater Manchester Police, consultant physicians after half a day of deliberation, sectioned me as a result of what in their assessment was “reckless and dangerous tweeting”!
Even though the section was overturned at a tribunal a week later(3), the experience coloured my view of mental health law in this country. Considerably so. Does the Mental Health Act need reform? I think so.
In the last decade there have been changes to the way the mentally ill are detained. Nowadays it frequently involves the police. (4) A jail cell is a terrible place to spend a day, let alone for someone suffering mental illness, speaking out of experience. The practice of psychiatry has advanced. Mental illness is diagnosed more often. Physicians placing people on a mental health section is increasing.(5)
Being detained against your will is harrowing.
I draw comparison to Sri Lanka. There are reports of dissident journalists such as Prageeth Eknaligoda being abducted by unregistered white vans.(6) (Last summer, I was handcuffed and escorted in the back of a Greater Manchester Police white van.) There’s been reports of Sri Lankans detained involuntarily and vulnerable to torture. (7) Electroshock therapy is still very much in use at the NHS.
Visiting Sri Lanka, David Cameron tweeted “I will be clear with the Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa: it’s time the appalling and chilling events in his country are investigated”. (8) Yet, what may I ask the Hon. Prime Minister, is being done to address the equally chilling erroneous involuntary detentions under the Mental Health Act in this country? (10)
The nearest relative, often a parent, is also granted power to detain you. Could an Asian parent use the threat of section to pressure a child into marriage? (Given that forced arranged marriage has recently been outlawed in the UK). This is a cause of tension. It’s why I fear my family. The diagnosis of mental illness a decade ago has created a distance between me and my family. An abyss. There’s no trust anymore. (This is exacerbated by the fact we’re Sri Lankan).
A Sri Lankan schoolmate deletes my birthday wish from Facebook.
A first cousin won’t add me on Facebook.
There’s shame too.
For a young software engineer and a recently published Oxford graduate(11), the diagnosis of mental illness would be life-changing. After struggling in IT for a decade and as a consequence of long term unemployment since being sectioned last year, I’ve had to bite the bullet and make a career change.
With 1 in 4 people in England experiencing mental illness, there’s a 25% probability you could be subject to the Mental Health Act sometime in your life.(12) To its whims and its devastating, life altering effect. Enacted more than 3 decades ago, I believe the medical practice of psychiatry and methods of detention by the NHS have changed significantly to warrant its reform.