Last year, the Government announced that it was setting up an Independent Review of the Mental Health Act. This Review is being chaired by Professor Sir Simon Wessely and it is looking for opinions on how well the Act works for people. This is a great opportunity to make sure that the Act works better for autistic people who also have mental health problems.

The Review has published two surveys to find out more from people. One is for people who have been detained under the Mental Health Act (‘sectioned’) and one is for carers and families of people who have been detained. You can find these surveys and more information about the Review on its website. You can either fill out the survey online or print it out, fill it in and post it back. There is information on how to do this in the ‘Service user and carer survey’ section of the website.

The surveys are open until 28 February 2018. You can help by completing the survey and also by sharing it with anyone else you think might be interested in completing it.

What is the Mental Health Act and what does it do?

The Mental Health Act is the law which sets out when you can be admitted, detained and treated in a mental health hospital. It is also known as being ‘sectioned’. For this to happen, certain people must agree that you have a ‘mental disorder’. They also need to think you are putting your own safety or someone else’s at risk.

Being sectioned can mean that you are treated even if you don’t want the treatment. However, you have certain rights under the Mental Health Act, including the right to appeal and the right to get help from an advocate.

Mental health and autism

Autism is not a mental health condition, but often, due to a lack of recognition of their autism and because of inappropriate support, many children and adults on the autism spectrum develop mental health problems. You can find out more about autism and mental health on our website. 

The National Autistic Society published its Transforming Care: our stories report last September. This found that many autistic people and their families struggle to get the mental health support that they need. You can help make these points by telling the Review what you think the Mental Health Act needs to do in the survey.

Some of the things you might want to consider are:

- Do mental health professionals understand autism?
- Do you think it was appropriate that you, or your relative, was sectioned?
- What mental health support do you or your relative need?
- Was the care and support in a mental health hospital good quality? If not, why?
- How long were you or your relative in a mental health hospital? Was this longer than was needed?
- Do you think your or your relative’s wishes about the care and treatment in a mental health hospital were listened to?

Please take some time to fill out the survey.

Have your say!


Wider issues on the Mental Health Act

In our response to the review, we are raising particular concerns about the definition of ‘mental disorder’ under the Mental Health Act. 
The Act’s definition of “mental disorder” includes autism, meaning that autistic people can be sectioned under the Act without having a mental health problem. 
Before sectioning an autistic person, health professionals would also have to show (depending on the section – this page from Mind explains the different types of sections) that you needed assessment or treatment and that sectioning was needed for your own health or safety or for the protection of other people. 

In 2007, the definition of mental disorder for people with a learning disability was amended to exclude those who were not also displaying “abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct”. However, despite our campaigning at the time and since, autism remained defined as a ‘mental disorder’ under the Act, with no qualification.

We believe that there is a risk that some autistic people may be detained for treatment under the Act purely because they have behaviour that is perceived as challenging, even where there is in fact no appropriate medical treatment available for that person in hospital in relation to such behaviours. This is discriminatory and potentially gives too much discretion to professionals to deprive an autistic person of their liberty, even where they don’t have a mental health problem. 
We are urging the advisory panel to look at the definition of ‘mental disorder’ as part of their review. You can email if you agree that this need to happen. Some suggested text is below.

Dear Professor Sir Simon Wessely

Review of the Mental Health Act and Autism

I understand that you are currently leading a review of the Mental Health Act. As part of that review. I believe it is important that you consider the need to change the definition of ‘mental disorder’ as it applies to autism.

As I am sure you are aware, autism is not a mental health problem. Unlike mental health problems, autism is a lifelong condition and cannot be ‘treated’. When the Act was amended in 2007, a qualification was added to the definition of ‘mental disorder’ as it applied to someone with a learning disability, but this same qualification was not added in relation to autism. I believe that this is discriminatory and needs to be addressed urgently.

The Green Paper No Voice Unheard, No Right Ignored, published under the coalition Government identified that because of the definition, some people were being detained under the Act purely because they have behaviour that is challenging as a consequence of their learning disability or autism, even where there is in fact no appropriate medical treatment available for that person in that hospital in relation to such behaviours. Given that no treatment is available, this is already illegal, but the problems with the definition make this a grey area for practitioners.

I look forward to hearing from you about how your review will look at this issue.