In the 1990s, a wave of panic against the mentally ill was sparked by a very small number of highly publicised, tragic incidents, where members of the public were attacked by people with mental health problems, not necessarily already diagnosed, who had fallen between gaps in services and who were “defaulting on medication.” Chief among these was the 1995 murder of Jonathan Zito by the itinerant “schizophrenic” Christopher Clunis at Finsbury Park tube station, an incident which catalysed a wave of newspaper headlines and campaigns by maverick ‘mental health’ charities like SANE and the then newly formed Zito Trust, to restrict users’ civil liberties and reinforce public distrust of the mentally frail.
Prior to this, the Royal College of Psychiatrists had been pushing for many years increased powers for doctors to compel treatment.
In 1998, then Health Secretary Frank Dobson unveiled in parliament a Mental Health Bill aimed at satisfying these campaigners by replacing the 1983 Mental Health Act with new legislation, broadening the definition of mental disorder and removing several exclusions such as alcoholism and eccentricity. A major plank was to introduce Community Treatment Orders (CTOs), which would allow psychiatrists to compel users in their own homes to submit to treatment whether they like it or not, at threat of readmission to hospital, regardless of their current state of health; and replacing the previous “treatability clause” with “appropriate treatment,” in effect allowing doctors to incarcerate indefinitely those with the unscientific diagnosis of “personality disorders” – IN CASE they became dangerous in the future. Announcing the Bill, Dobson described patients as “nuisance neighbours” and dismissed as “weasel words” Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes’ concerns that the proposals constituted a draconian attack on patients’ civil liberties.
SANE were thrilled. Chief Executive Marjorie Wallace’s subsequent Daily Mail column was headlined, simply, “Victory.” Photocopies of this article were plastered all over the walls of the charity’s Whitechapel offices. Others were less pleased.
Every credible mental health charity in Britain came out strongly against the Bill, as did bodies representing social workers, and hospital and community psychiatric nurses. MIND, Rethink, and dozens of other charities and professionals’ groups formed the Mental Health Alliance, aimed at challenging the threats through negotiation and media work, on the following grounds. The Bill’s exclusive focus on public safety and violence would exacerbate public fear and hostility towards patients. CTOs, nicknamed “psychiatric ASBOs,” would risk scaring people away from services, making them still more likely to default on medication. Numbers of people likely to receive forced medication would increase, and real service delivery problems, and discrimination and inequalities within the system, would not be addressed. The dignity, respect and rights of service users would be further undermined.
The most angry responses came from patients themselves. Since the 1970s, groups such as Survivors Speak Out and the Campaign Against Psychiatric Oppression had sought to challenge the many systematic abuses inherent in traditional psychiatric treatment, and promote alternatives. However, too much energy was frittered away in divisive debates on whether “mental illness” really existed, and appropriate or otherwise use of medical terminology. Ironically, the Bill had the effect of galvanising and uniting what had become known as “the user movement” against a common enemy.
In March 1999, pressure group Reclaim Bedlam organised a march on patients’ old enemies SANE protesting against this charity’s support for CTOs. Dressed playfully in white coats, “we managed to get 200 people turning up to the SANE march – which at the time was an unprecedented figure for a ‘mad’ demo. We had whistles, drums, a 7-foot long syringe together with a kitchen table, corn-flakes and milk, tridents (because we’re the devil), banners, flyer you name it – we pulled out the stops. SANE didn’t know what the fuck had hit them. They dropped their support for CTO’s and to this day, they’re still reeling from this event.” (Pete Shaughnessy, Reclaim Bedlam)
Chief Executive Marjorie Wallace came out and confronted the gang of screaming lunatics, disingenuously claiming that she’d “always opposed CTOs.” This failed to prevent the negative headlines and TV coverage severely damaging her credibility.
This direct action marked a sea change in the nature of opposition to the Bill. SANE, at least in public, were forced to reverse their position. The Royal College of Psychiatrists followed, suddenly mindful that increased powers of coercion would also engender increased responsibilities, with doctors further scapegoated in the event of the occasional and entirely unpredictable tragedy. The entire mental health profession was now united against the government’s proposals.
The Department of Health, reluctant to back down, spent the next few years conducting a series of consultations and working groups with charities, patients and statutory professionals. In a game of cat and mouse, the experts failed to alter the DoH’s intentions, but at least managed to repeatedly delay their implementation.
“How can you celebrate LOBOTOMY, LIFETIME, INSTITUTIONALISATION – TAKING YOUR OWN LIFE – DEPRESSION – DRUG DEPENDENCY – ECTS…” (Survivors Speak Out)
“Reclaim Bedlam”, had its origins in 1997 in the 750th anniversary of ‘Bedlam’ – the Bethlehem hospital. Pete Shaughnessy, who had been a patient at South London’s Maudsley mental hospital, saw nothing to celebrate in either the original Bedlam (‘a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty,’ in historian Roy Porter’s words), or the current state of mental health care.
Reclaim Bedlam organised ‘Raving in the park”, a picnic/rave/a sit-in outside the original Bedlam site at the Imperial War Museum to protest.
“Maudsley & Bethlem Mental Health Trust saw itself as la crème de la crème of mental health. In 1997, it was more like the Manchester City of mental health. Situated in one of the poorest areas of the country, it put a lot of resources into its national projects, and neglected its local ones. Its history went back to the first Bedlam, the first institution of mental health. If you pop down to the museum at Bethlem Hospital, you will see a picture proudly displayed of the 700th celebrations in 1947, with the Queen Mother planting a tree. Well, not exactly planting, more like putting her foot on a spade.
So, when some PR bureaucrat came up with the idea of 750th celebrations, it must have all made sense. An excuse for a year of corporate beanos. The Chief Executive could picture the MBE in the cabinet. There was only one problem: in 1947, the patients would have been well pleased with a party, in 1997 some patients wanted more. In the so-called ‘user friendly’ 90s, I thought ‘commemoration’ was more appropriate. So, a few of us went to battle with the Maudsley PR machine. It was commemoration vs. celebration.
I think for the first time, we were taking the user movement out of the ghetto of smoky hospital rooms and into the mainstream. We spoke at Reclaim the Streets and political events. We would gatecrash conferences to push the message…
Our next event was to screw up the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s Cathedral which a member of the Royal Family was attending… it’s widely thought that because of our antics on the steps of St Paul’s – as well as stopping the traffic at 11am with a boat forcing Tower Bridge to open – that the Chief Exec didn’t get his MBE.
Our next event was to join up with ECT Anonymous and the All-Wales User and Survivor Group and picket the Royal College of Psychiatry. It was the first time Reclaim Bedlam had been involved in International Direct Action. Keeping up the pressure on the Royal College of Psychiatry we hijacked their anti-stigma campaign, ‘In Every Family in the Land’. The soundbite I used was: ‘the psychiatrist is patting you on the head with one hand, and with the other hand he /she is using compulsory treatment to inject you up the bum.” (Pete Shaughnessy)
Hundreds of mental patients around the country supported Reclaim Bedlam, and the BBC2 series From The Edge made a programme about it. At a time of many community-care horror stories, a very different message was finally getting out.
Pete Shaughnessy went on to be one of the founders of Mad Pride. He took his own life in December 2002.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online