Mentally ill still denied rights

Glenda Cooper

There is outrage when vulnerable people are denied their human rights. However, there is one section of society who have suffered many abuses but for whom few speak up: those with learning disabilities or mental illness.

"Once you are diagnosed with a mental illness your rights go out of the window," said Liz Sayce, policy director of the charity Mind.

Anger has focused this week on the revelations of decades of compulsory sterilisations across Europe, but the practice remains legal in many countries. Mentally handicapped or mentally ill women can still be sterilised against their will in Britain, Ms Sayce said. "It is legal for people not deemed to have capacity to make the decision to be sterilised in their best interests."

Steve Billington, campaigns director for the charity Mencap which supports people with learning disabilities said: "It is outrageous that in the Nineties any woman can be forced to have a sterilisation for `social reasons'. No one would dispute sterilisation for sound medical reasons but it must be clear it ... is not just for society's convenience."

It is still all too often assumed that mentally ill or disabled patients should not have children and this is acted on in other ways such as long- lasting contraceptive injections or strongly persuading women to have abortions.

Ms Sayce said that people with mental disorders can have treatment imposed on them against their will under the Mental Health Act. "People can be incapacitated by a mental health problem and not be able to make a decision for hours or days but can be given treatment against their will under some sections for six months."

She also said: "Under the criminal justice system you are not considered a reliable witness, so there have been situations when women have been sexually assaulted and because they have had the diagnosis of mental illness police procedure has not been fully followed or the Crown Prosecution Service does not prosecute or gives priority to cases with `reliable witnesses'."

In the workplace, disability discrimination laws provide some protection, but mental patients can still be refused work. In some cases a person has to have had a disability for six months to be covered by legislation, so someone who has suffered from a depressive disorder for a month and refused a job on those grounds is not protected.

"We have started to think about those with physical disabilities - access to transport, the workplace - but those with mental health problems are still less regarded," Ms Sayce said.

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