We can celebrate Seni’s Law, but the fight for justice isn’t over

07/12/2021

After years of campaigning, Seni’s Law was enacted on 7 December 2021. Our Policy Manager, Will Johnstone, talks about the journey to getting the law passed, the difference we hope it can make in mental health units and how this is just the beginning for making services more safe – particularly for people from Black backgrounds.

In 2018, the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Act was passed by Parliament. The culmination of long years of campaigning by the family of Olaseni Lewis, who tragically died after prolonged restraint by a group of police officers in 2010, this legislation sought to reduce the use of restraint in mental health inpatient services, and to prevent horrific cases such as Seni’s from occurring ever again.

Rethink Mental Illness campaigned alongside a group of other mental health organisations to improve the act while it was going through parliament, and to make sure it passed. Those of us who worked on the law at the time are incredibly proud of the difference that the act has the potential to make to the experience of people in mental health units, and optimistic that this will mark a paradigm shift against the normalised use of restraint in supposedly caring environments.

Frustratingly, and largely due to the pandemic, we have had to wait for two years for Seni’s Law to be enacted. During which the need for change has been reinforced. In 2020-21, the number of restrictive interventions rose to over 151,000 from 131,000 the year before. It’s likely that conditions in mental health services under the various national lockdowns contributed to that rise.

  • Mental health units should be a place of safety and recovery, and it’s hard to see how rising use of restrictive interventions could be a part of that.

But our hope is that the new law will help to slow, and then eventually even reverse the instances of restraint. Mental health units should be a place of safety and recovery, and it’s hard to see how rising use of restrictive interventions could be a part of that.

The fight to prevent cases like Seni’s from occurring again has not ended with this important change in the law – in many ways it’s only just beginning, as improved data required by the act demonstrates the stark inequalities in the racialised use of restraint.

The most recent data shows that Black or Black British people were nearly 5 times more likely to be subject to a restrictive intervention in an NHS-funded secondary mental health service, with people from ‘Any other black background’ over 11 times more likely. These statistics look eerily similar to the racial disproportionality shown in detentions under the Mental Health Act, and part of the answer to them may lie in the reform of this outdated and unequal piece of legislation.

It’s clear that we still have a long way to go as campaigners to reduce and one day eliminate the use of restraint in mental health units. But today’s landmark is cause for celebration and joy – we’ve taken a step in the right direction, and Rethink Mental Illness won’t give up until everyone who needs the protection and care of mental health treatment has the security and safety that they need to thrive.

Join us in our fight to secure legal and social rights for everyone severely affected by mental illness – become a campaigner today.

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