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Reform of Mental Health Act ‘urgent’ says Bishop of St Albans

01 December 2023

Parliament TV

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, speaks in the House of Lords last week

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, speaks in the House of Lords last week

THE omission of the Mental Health Bill from the King’s Speech (News, 10 November) was “a matter of great concern”, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, told the House of Lords last week. Reform of the current legislation, last updated in 2007, was urgently needed, he said.

“With the number of children and young people being referred to mental-health services increasing, alongside increasing waiting times for treatment, it is clear how urgent and pressing the reform of the Mental Health Act is,” Dr Smith said during a take-note debate on the mental health of children and young people.

“The Government have said that the Bill would be published when parliamentary time allows. I would argue that this is of the highest priority. Improved mental health in our young people and children — and the rest of the population, more broadly —would not only decrease the huge levels of suffering and anguish but bring immense economic benefits, saving taxpayers’ money and bringing more people into the workforce.”

Research from the Mental Health Foundation showed that those with mental-health problems suffered higher levels of unemployment, more stays in hospital, and were more likely to have contact with the criminal-justice system, Dr Smith said. This was “extremely costly” for the country.

Figures showed that, at the end of August, 414,550 children and young people were in contact with mental-health services. “Waiting times have increased, as have the number of children referred who do not end up ever receiving treatment,” he said.

But it was not just the scale of the problem which was a matter of concern. The quality of care needed urgent rethinking, according to the recommendations set out in a recent report by the Health and Social Care Committee, which had found that many children faced long stays in adult wards, far away from their homes.

“I ask the Government to consider how traumatising these conditions must be for children and young people who are already mentally unwell enough to be admitted to a mental-health-care ward.”

He expressed concern about the use of restraint with children and young people, which was used five times more often than with adults.

“Many of these issues could be addressed, as was recommended, by expanding the legal right to support from an independent mental-health advocate to all children and young people,” he said.

“As it stands, we have mentally unwell children as in-patients who do not have the right to advocacy, and many of whom do not understand their rights, and worry that they must do as they are told or they may end up being sectioned.”

Dr Smith then turned to the lack of regulation of online gambling and gaming, and the effects of gambling on mental health. “Some 60,000 to 62,000 young people in this country are classified as having a gambling disorder. According to law, they should not even be gambling,” he said.

Gaming disorder had now been recognised by the World Health Organization as a mental-health disorder. Seventy per cent of the patients at the NHS-funded National Centre for Gaming Disorders were under 18.

“We need to support our world-leading, brilliant gaming industry . . . but there is, nevertheless, a downside, which urgently need regulation. Surely, the gambling and gaming industry needs to pay a compulsory levy, on the principle that the polluter pays,” he said.

Dr Smith said that, according to polling, the British people now ranked mental health as a more important issue than unemployment, industrial action, and Brexit.

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