In the 19th century England, mental health issues were governed by what was known as 'lunacy law'. Although Victorian parliamentary acts changed the status of those suffering from mental illness from prisoners to patients, they were still kept in brutal asylums.
Today, modern medicine has a sophisticated understanding of the broad spectrum of disorders that constitute mental illness, but politics seem scarcely to have moved on. Mental health treatment is in crisis. Acute psychiatric wards are 'not safe' and are 'uninhabitable', according to Dinesh Bhugra, the new president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, whose damning verdict is reported in today's Observer. Patients are neglected and often put at risk of violence and sexual assault. The problem, as it has been for decades, is a woeful lack of funding compounded by ministerial failure to address the needs of mental health patients.
Nine years ago, the government cited transforming treatment of mental illness along with heart disease and cancer as one of its top three priorities for the NHS. Since then, the only substantial change has been the Mental Health Act 2007, which strengthened the regime under which people can be forced to accept medication and be 'sectioned' - detained on wards against their will. Those wards were described earlier this year by the Mental Health Commission as having become 'tougher and scarier' places in the last decade. In other words, the most vulnerable and disorientated people are sent to a place likely to exacerbate depression and psychosis.
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