The Government's mental health tsar has condemned the unnecessary use of force by psychiatric staff towards black mental health patients, which has led to a number of deaths.

Professor Louis Appleby said that men from ethnic minorities in particular are victims of racist stereotyping and heavy-handed treatment.

His comments follow the publication of a damning report into the death of David "Rocky" Bennett, 38, a black patient who was pinned face down on the floor of a psychiatric ward by nurses for 25 minutes.

The inquiry panel, chaired by a former High Court judge, Sir John Blofeld, said that institutional racism was a "festering abcess" within mental health services and that black patients were wrongly seen as "aggressive to start with".

Professor Appleby said the needs of different cultures had to be taken into account when treating patients.

"Young black males do suffer from being stereotyped, although this is not unique to the mental health services," he said. "People who work in mental health care have the same stereotypes as those who work outside. Research reports have highlighted how disturbed, male, black patients can be seen as more intimidating."

Mental health charities have criticised the lack of a central system for recording the number of black and Asian patients who die in secure units or who sustain injuries. They estimate there is at least one unexplained death a week on psychiatric wards.

The Independent on Sunday has learned that since 1980 more than 15 black men with histories of mental illness have died in psychiatric care or while being restrained by the police. Some have collapsed after being forced to take anti-psychotic drugs.

This figure includes David Bennett, who died in October 1998 at the Norvic clinic, a medium-secure unit in Norwich, Norfolk. He had suffered mental health problems for 18 years. The report into his death made 22 recommendations, including the appointment of an ethnicity mental health tsar and a three-minute limit on the amount of time staff may restrain a patient.

The Secretary of State for Health, John Reid, has promised to meet the Bennett family in May to discuss an action plan for improving mental health services for black and Asian patients. According to a survey carried out by Rethink, the mental health charity, black and ethnic minority patients are 40 per cent more likely than white people to be turned away when they ask for help. At least 88 per cent of black people have been forcibly restrained under a section, compared to 43 per cent of white people.

The Police Complaints Authority is currently investigating the "suspicious" death of Michael Powell - the 38-year-old cousin of the poet Benjamin Zephaniah - who died in September. Police were called to the house of the factory worker in Handsworth, Birmingham, after he suffered a breakdown. He was pronounced dead at Birmingham's City Hospital two hours after being taken to Thornhill Road police station.

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