By Andy Bell
It should never require a television documentary to shock a society into acting on institutional abuses in any public service, let alone those treating people who are at their most vulnerable and traumatised. Yet sadly it too often does. This week’s Panorama programme exposing serious abuses at the medium secure Edenfield Centre in Greater Manchester joins a litany of similar programmes that have forced the public to confront the consequences of a failure to provide care that meets basic standards of human decency.
The programme was distressing viewing for anyone. For some, it will have opened their eyes to abuse that has been happening in institutions for as long as they have been a part of our mental health care system. For people living with a mental health difficulty and their families, it will have been unimaginably traumatic to witness this abusive treatment; while for some it will be all too painfully reminiscent of their own experiences.
We need to ask why this continues to happen in our NHS in 2022. We all know, theoretically, that mental health is not given ‘parity’ in the NHS or in health policy generally as much as it should be. But most people are rarely confronted with the evidence of what happens as a result of this inequity. It is well known that using closed institutional responses and coercive approaches to human distress create stark power imbalances that leave individuals at risk of being abused, mistreated and traumatised. But too often those experiences are not acknowledged or addressed without the watching eye of national television.
After documentaries like this week’s Panorama, we often hear from leaders that ‘lessons will be learned’, that it will be a ‘turning point’. It’s what we heard after the exposures of abuse at Winterbourne View and elsewhere. So what will be different this time? Will we finally get fair funding for mental health services in every area of the NHS? Will the Government and Parliament modernise the Mental Health Act to create stronger safeguards for people’s safety and dignity, including in secure services? Will commissioners and providers of institutional services make real changes to their practices and cultures to prevent abuse from occurring? Will they listen with compassion when people speak about the abuse they’ve been subjected to?
This is the responsibility of the whole of the NHS, not just mental health services. It’s the responsibility of government. And it’s the responsibility of civil society too. We all have to act to ensure that mental health services are safe, compassionate and just. We cannot turn a blind eye to closed cultures, restrictive practices and abuses of power. This is on all of us.
We know today’s programme will be distressing for many people. If you need immediate support, you can contact your local NHS on 111 or 999 in an emergency; Samaritans on 116 123 or text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258.