A case that shows tough new mental health legislation should be used only sparingly

One sweltering hot morning in May, Anna McHugh visited her doctor's surgery. Having undergone an intensive cycle of IVF in Australia, where her husband's family is from, she was anxious and depressed. The night before she'd had a heated argument with her husband.

"We'd been trying to have a baby," said the 27-year-old, who lives in Hampstead, London. "When I came back [from Australia] I was pregnant but I didn't know it. That was one of the problems - I had tested too early and the test was negative. I was very upset.

"So I went to my GP and said: 'I'm having a hard time. I don't know if I can cope. I suffer from depression. Can you help me?'" Four hours later she found herself admitted to St Pancras Hospital. Then, having admitted to the attending doctor that she had contemplated suicide, she was sectioned under Section 5.2 of the Mental Health Act.

For the next 18 hours, despite her protestations and those of her husband, Ms McHugh was detained in a lock-down ward, under close observation by nurses. When her husband tried to rescue her, she was held in a headlock while a doctor discussed her case with him.

This week, as the House of Lords debates new mental health legislation that proposes tough new laws to control the mentally ill, her experience - which she likens to rape - has left her convinced that the law should be applied less severely, rather than more.

Among measures being considered are the power to compel patients discharged from hospital to continue taking their treatment using community treatment orders (CTOs), and to lock up people with severe personality disorders, judged to be a danger to themselves or others.

"I fear it will be used as an excuse for mental health professionals to detain people when they have no more than an intuitive feeling," she says.

"If this legislation is passed, there will be a general whip-round for people like me to be forced into treatment of some sort. Severe personality disorders are a notoriously vague area of psychiatry."

Ms McHugh was discharged from hospital and in days discovered she was pregnant. Weeks later she miscarried and, once again, was plunged into despair.

"I would say to anyone who deals with depression or anger, be careful who you speak to and be careful what you admit," she says. "The 5.2 should be applied rarely because the effects of having that done to you outweigh any gain. I had complained about a valid health problem. I was deprived input into my care and was deprived of my liberty."


What needs to be done

The 'IoS' has campaigned for significant changes to existing services and to the Mental Health Bill. We are calling for:

* The right to the most appropriate treatment when needed. This includes those in high-security hospitals, eligible for transfer.

* Patients able to decide about care should have the right to refuse treatment, unless at risk.

* No detention unless they need treatment for their own benefit or have committed a crime.

* No forcible treatment once they have left hospital. We need improved and more accessible services including mentors and sheltered accommodation.