Good mental health hospitals save lives. Many of the young people we work with say that, at their very lowest point, they received excellent support from amazing professionals who helped them to turn their lives around, see a way forward and begin on the path to recovery.
But this isn’t always the case.
Too often, young people in inpatient care, and their parents, find going into hospital a frightening and confusing experience and don’t feel they have enough of a voice in treatment and medication. A survey we carried out earlier this year suggested that 44% of parents of children in mental health units felt unable to challenge decisions about treatment, while 52% didn’t know what rights their child had while in hospital.
In some cases, young people in mental health hospitals can be subjected to dangerous forms of restraint, or put in long-duration seclusion – locked in a room, on their own, for hours on end, because staff haven’t found another way to manage their behaviour.
Of course, staff in mental health units have an incredibly difficult job, and have a responsibility to prevent children from causing serious harm to themselves and others. But it can’t be right that young people who should be receiving the help they need to get home are being treated in a way which holds back their recovery and can cause physical injury.
The guidance states that restraint should only be used as a last resort, but the evidence suggests that some units are using it far too much. While staff do not use restraint lightly, in some cases they may not have had enough training in other ways to manage challenging behaviour. This simply isn’t fair on either staff or the young people they work with.
Isabelle Garnett, whose son Matthew was frequently restrained face-down by several staff members while in a mental health unit, says: “Face-down restraint is an inappropriate, outdated and brutal practice that causes harm to the individual, does nothing help them get better and is life-threatening. It must stop… Instead of restraining our nation’s most vulnerable young people, we should be helping them get better.”
Another of the young people we work with says: “I have a background of trauma and found that restraint would trigger flashbacks and become a bit of a vicious cycle… Restraint is a confusing, awful thing, which strips you of your dignity and liberty and leaves you feeling hollow. I’ve sustained injuries during restraint, it’s done nothing to help my mental health and I’ve been left wanting to hide in the corner of a room for a long time.”
These are not isolated incidents. Research from Agenda shows that face-down restraint was used more than 2,500 times on people under 18 in mental health units in 2014/15 – the last year from which records are available. Meanwhile, three separate United Nations reports have criticised the way that restraint is used on children and young people with mental health conditions in the UK.
That’s why the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill is so important.
On Friday 3rd November, Steve Reed MP is taking a Private Members Bill to the House of Commons, which would make the use of restrictive practices – including face-down restraint, chemical restraint and long-term seclusion – far more accountable.
The Bill is known as Seni’s Law, named after 23-year-old Seni Lewis, who died after being restrained face-down by 11 police officers in a mental health unit. If it goes through, Seni’s Law will ensure that every use of force in a mental health unit is systematically recorded, and that every unit has a policy in place on force and a named individual responsible for implementing it.
Crucially, the Bill would also mean much more training for staff on de-escalation techniques, so they have better ways to handle challenging behaviour than the use of force.
It’s truly inspiring to meet young people who have been in inpatient units for months, or even years, and who are now studying at university or starting their first jobs, with hope for the future – and shows how vital the support given in mental health units is. But we must make sure that the rights of young people in inpatient care are always respected.
That’s why this is such a crucial moment. The Bill has widespread support from charities and mental health professionals, but it will only go through if enough MPs turn up to vote for it.
So please join us in emailing your MP, and telling them that this vote really matters. For the sake of thousands of children who urgently need help, and of the staff who work with them, MP must vote for Seni’s Law.