Lord Bragg: 'We can't just lock people up and forget about them'

Melvyn Bragg, the president of the mental health charity Mind, yesterday called for immediate changes to Britain's mental health service.

Responding to The Independent on Sunday's campaign for fairer treatment of patients being held unnecessarily in secure hospitals such as Broadmoor, Lord Bragg said: "I'm wholeheartedly supporting campaigns like this. It's useful, important and corrective."

The author and broadcaster went on to outline some practical solutions to the problems with mental health provision in this country.

"There needs to be an instant overhaul of special hospitals," he said. "If people aren't dangerous, they should be brought back into the community. We can't just lock them up and forget about them. An excellent suggestion would be to re-evaluate each case in each special hospital.

"There is a growing recognition that these are serious illnesses and that they are curable. The idea of shutting people up in renamed lunatic asylums is not the way forward."

Referring to cases highlighted by this newspaper, such as that of Janet Cresswell, the writer who has been locked up in Broadmoor for 20 years, Lord Bragg said: "I would hope that the 400 or so people who should be transferred won't be replaced with more people being banged up for idiosyncratic reasons."

At community level, Lord Bragg said that he believed a lot more could be done financially. "It comes down to solid things like benefits," he said. "At its simplest, these things need to be seen like physical disabilities. The whole benefits system must be as open to people with mental disabilities as other people, so that they can have some support while they beat their illness. If you have a mental illness, you should be looked after by the state, and the company you work for like everyone else."

"We need better hospitals and better, more specialised care. It would also be useful to provide for costs of ongoing medication through the National Health Service. One feels rather rueful about a 'throw some money at it' solution, but that would help."

Lord Bragg went on to identify other key problems at the heart of the mental health issue. "People still aren't able to diagnose mental disturbance very well," he said. "There doesn't seem to be a consensus on what is a 'serious' depressive or a 'serious' schizophrenic. The issues are classification and recognition of what is a real disability.

"Mental health is something that's been hushed up and hasn't been on anybody's agenda for a long time, both politically and socially.

"You're fighting a very long battle here and that's the problem. There's an appalling history: people with mental health problems used to be on a par with lepers, and it's easy to put them out of sight and out of mind.

"There seems to be a lack of interest and a disinclination to do anything at all. There have been an awful lot of injustices and an awful lot of neglect. Exposing what is going on is very important."

Lord Bragg did, however, point out that new mental health legislation was under way, and that in terms of psychiatry, medication and general understanding, the treatment of mental illness had come a long way in the past decade.

"I do think that things are changing, and changing for the better," he said. "We're pushing at an open door, which is a great thing, but we are also carrying an awful lot of baggage with us."

Tony Banks MP agreed with many of Lord Bragg's sentiments. "The attitude towards mental health is very much locked in the 19th century," he said. "These people are a Cinderella group: right down at the bottom of the heap. There is much more that we could do as a nation. We need more resources, and we need to review the situation – both collectively and individually."

'Abandoned' for 13 years

"Julie" was an 18-year-old student nurse in London when she was first admitted to hospital suffering from mental health problems. A severe personality disorder was later diagnosed. Now 31, she is being detained at a private psychiatric hospital under the Mental Health Act.

Julie's disorder causes her to harm herself and to attack others. For more than a year, she has been kept on constant medication in the medium-security unit, but has received none of the psychological treatment she was promised.

Told that she would need five years' treatment, she has now spent more than 13 years in care. Att the most recent hospital, she was told that the specialist unit was changing its focus from personality disorders to "enduring mental illness" such as manic depression. "It was the perfect place," said Julie. "The facilities were all there – it was built up specifically for personality disorders. But then six days after I arrived, it had all changed."

Julie refused to accept this decision and took the hospital to court on the ground of human rights. She won her case at the High Court in April. Despite her victory, Julie remains in the hospital, still waiting for a transfer.

"It's very frustrating, and you feel abandoned by the whole situation," she said. "The mental health system seems unable to provide properly for people with severe personality disorders."