Kill the bill and move on

So fed up has mental health charity Rethink become with the government’s lacklustre anti-stigma campaign that it has launched one of its own to show how it should be done.

The government’s “Shift” campaign to tackle stigma and discrimination in mental health is now run by the Department of Health’s Care Services Improvement Partnership with an annual budget of £1m, enough no doubt to pay for leaflets, posters and a few special events but hardly calculated to get the message over in prime sites across the country. Two years into the five year campaign, it appears to have had little impact.

In terms of government policy on mental health, the campaign’s failure is instructive. When Shift began DH minister Rosie Winterton mentioned what she had been told by people with mental health problems: “They tell me they can manage their symptoms and get on with their lives, but fear, prejudice and the resulting discrimination take away the rights that most of us take for granted.” It is interesting to contrast this statement with the wording of a House of Commons early day motion hostile to the government’s proposed Mental Health Bill: “The resultant [legislation] will seriously restrict the rights, choices and well-being of people with mental distress and force too many people into compulsory treatment.”

Time will tell whether rumours of the Mental Health Bill’s demise have been exaggerated. But if it is not dead, it ought to be. As an attack on the rights and interests of people with mental health problems or personality disorder, it exceeds anything even the Tories managed in their populist onslaughts against the sector during the 1990s. Naturally the bill’s opponents include the growing numbers of MPs, not least Labour ones, keen to defend civil liberties generally at a time when the government has clearly declared war on them. The fact that 36 Labour MPs have signed the motion, more than enough to defeat the bill were they to vote against it in the Commons, may explain why the government appears to be having second thoughts about it.

The absurdity of campaigning for the rights of people with mental health problems while simultaneously clamping down on them seems to have been lost on ministers. They should ditch the bill and strengthen the 1983 Act instead. Then they’ll be free to follow Rethink’s example and mount a campaign that works.

See Labour MP’s opposition mean bill could fall if put to Commons vote and Charity’s anti-stigma campaign aims to set example to health department

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