The government too must think ahead - and amend its mental health bill

Published: 04/07/2002, Volume II2, No. 5812 Page 17

The new Steven Spielberg movie, Minority Report, involves a futuristic lawenforcement department able to identify murderers before they strike. The draft mental health bill appears to hope for the same kind of psychic powers from those involved in treating and caring for those with 'mental disorders' (news focus, pages 1011). The opposition to the proposals for detainment and compulsory treatment is robust and widespread and the government should listen - even at this late stage.

But it should also consider what messages an approach to mental illness which produces such proposals sends to both the health service and the public. Psychiatric illhealth extends far beyond the estimated 600 people with dangerous severe personality disorder currently in the community. The UK is still a country trying to take mental illness seriously. Did not a recent British Medical Journal poll see doctors voting depression - which (along with anxiety) plays a part in around a third of all GP consultations - as a 'non-illness'. If that is what doctors think, what hope for the public?

This bill seems set to do little to tackle a still largely hidden problem which is a huge drain on the NHS and the source of considerable anguish to sufferers and their families. Iain Duncan Smith and Dr Liam Fox are to be congratulated on taking such an unexpectedly enlightened (and apparently non-political) view of the subject.

Does the government have the strength of mind to do the same?