Mental health policy is driven by fear and coercion, The King's Fund lecture hears

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Mental health policy has become obsessed with protecting the public from 'mad axemen' to the detriment of patient care, the second annual The King's Fund Lecture at the Faculty of Public Health Medicine annual conference was warned today.

Jeremy Laurance, health editor at The Independent, told the event that since the tragic death of Jonathan Zito in 1992, the rate of forcible admissions to psychiatric hospitals has risen almost by half and the number of beds in secure units has more than doubled.

This increase, he argued, has resulted from a growing climate of fear about a small group of potentially dangerous people, causing many thousands of others to be detained and treated against their will.

'The public and political focus on the tiny numbers who pose a risk has distracted attention from the plight of the huge majority of frightened, disturbed people whose suffering remains largely hidden from an uninterested world,' he said.

The proposed introduction of compulsory care in the community, Laurance warned, will increase the stigma that isolates people with mental illnesses and could deter many of them from seeking the help they need.

Introducing the lecture, The King's Fund chief executive Rabbi Julia Neuberger said:

'Jeremy Laurance's work brings into sharp focus the increasing authoritarianism in mental health policy, and the damage it does to those on the receiving end. As the Government outlines its plans for new mental health legislation this week, it is clear that we need a radically different public debate about mental illness, built upon a genuine understanding of people's needs and an appropriate response to those few people who do pose a risk to others.'

Faculty of Public Health Medicine President Dr Sian Griffiths said:

'We are delighted to welcome Jeremy Laurance to the faculty conference to give his lecture on mental health. This is an important aspect of public health and he is a nationally respected commentator. We are also delighted to be working with The King's Fund.'

Notes to editors

The 2002 King's Fund Lecture will be delivered by Jeremy Laurance at the Faculty of Public Health Medicine's annual conference at the Southport Theatre and Floral Hall at 6pm on Wednesday, 26 June 2002. It will be published on both organisations' web sites next month, along with the 2001 lecture by the late Professor Roy Porter.

The King's Fund is a member of the Mental Health Alliance, which will be responding to the draft Mental Health Bill jointly once it is published.

Jeremy Laurance's research was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and is being published by Routledge in the autumn.

For media passes to the Faculty conference, please contact Chloe Underwood, head of policy and communications, on 07899 937490.

For interviews or further information about the lecture, please contact Daniel Reynolds on 020 7307 2581 or 07831 554927.