Black Women Are More Likely To Be Sectioned & I Have Been, Twice

Photo by Flora Maclean
The person in this photo is a model, for illustrative purposes only.
The mental health crisis in the UK has reached yet another breaking point. Not only are people struggling to cope with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic but accessing mental health services is becoming more and more difficult due to long waiting lists. Research carried out by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in September 2020 found that two fifths of patients waiting for mental health treatment contact emergency or crisis services, with one in nine (11%) ending up in A&E.
The poll of 513 British adults diagnosed with a mental illness further reveals the damaging consequences of hidden waiting lists (the wait between referral and second appointments) on the lives of patients with severe or common mental illness. Of those on a hidden waiting list, nearly two thirds (64%) wait more than four weeks between their initial assessment and second appointment. One in four (23%) wait more than three months and one in nine (11%) wait longer than six months.
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Unsurprisingly, Black people bear the brunt of this ongoing issue. After a year of watching a disproportionate number of their loved ones die from coronavirus, experiencing racism online and in real life, and watching people who look like them be harassed, threatened or violently killed by police, it's hardly any wonder.
This month, the government announced that it will be reviewing the Mental Health Act to help tackle the disproportionate number of Black people who are sectioned. It comes as statistics show that Black people are four times more likely than white people to be detained under the Mental Health Act and 10 times more likely to be subject to a community treatment order.
Mind, the UK's largest mental health charity, said the racial disparity in the use of the Act is an "ongoing injustice", with Black people more likely to be subject to the Act's most coercive powers.
Detentions are made using Mental Health Act (1983) sections 135 and 136. Under the Act, people with a mental illness may be detained for their own safety or for the safety of others — this is sometimes referred to as sectioning. People who are detained can be held in psychiatric hospitals, in other NHS trusts or in independent service providers.
The upcoming reforms include piloting culturally appropriate advocates so that patients from all minority ethnic backgrounds can be better supported to voice their individual needs and allow sectioned people to nominate family members to represent their best interests if they are unable to do so themselves.
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Agnes Mwakatuma, cofounder of mental health charity Black Minds Matter UK, welcomes the reforms. "It is clear that this change is needed to be implemented now more than ever," she told Refinery29. "The ways in which the Mental Health Act's outcomes have been recorded has fuelled not only our reluctance to seek mental health support but have created a fear in most of us when it comes to reaching out for help."
She continued: "Recognising the flaws in the Mental Health Act and committing to addressing the inequalities in healthcare is a great step in the right direction."
Last summer, Jennifer*, 26, who has bipolar disorder, was sectioned by the police under the Mental Health Act, an experience which has left her traumatised. Here, she shares her account of what led to her being sectioned, the treatment she received and what she wants people to know about the process.
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In June 2020, I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act for the second time in my life. I have bipolar disorder and was experiencing a manic episode and psychosis. I was triggered by a multitude of things, such as the death of George Floyd, the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, being Black, watching strange performances of false allyship and the consequences of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
At the start of lockdown last year, I was undergoing therapy and it was really positive but my mental health started to decline because I was unable to work. I'm an events caterer and host workshops but due to restrictions, it meant I couldn't do any in-person work. I lost all my income, couldn't afford my rent and had to claim Universal Credit for the first time. I was also forced to move back in with my mother, with whom I have a strained relationship.
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The week before I was sectioned, I knew I was manic because I was posting erratically online. George Floyd had just been murdered, the protests around the world were in full swing and the Grenfell anniversary had just passed, on 14th June. I live in Ladbroke Grove, west London, and can see the remnants of Grenfell from every angle. It's eerie, upsetting and traumatising. I was really stressed out thinking about it and on 17th June I noticed a group of rich white people drinking on the street during lockdown without a care in the world while the sun set over Grenfell. Something in me snapped. I couldn't understand how they could sit there, drinking their alcohol, without being aware of the bigger picture. So I shouted at them.
The next day, I called my friends who are my support system. I explained to them how I was feeling and how being sectioned the first time was the worst experience of my life and while the nature of my condition could mean it might happen again, I did not want to be taken to hospital. But one friend was worried I would hurt myself, even though I had given no indication of this, and she called an ambulance that morning.
I was leaving my house to go to my friend's when the ambulance arrived. It took me to Charing Cross Hospital, where my mother was. She was trying to calm me down but I was so distressed that I was in the hospital. I didn't understand the reason why I needed to be there. It wasn't a usual hospital setting for me, everyone was wearing masks and they kept trying to make me wear one too. I was so disorientated being there, it caused me more stress. I managed to escape. I ran out of the hospital screaming "ACAB" (all cops are bastards). I went into the park and took off my shoes. I decided to ground myself by sitting in the sun and meditating. Then a police van turned up.
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The police handcuffed me and threw me into the back of their van. They were so aggressive, I ended up with bruises all over my arms. They took me to St Charles Centre for Wellbeing. I was being sectioned for a second time.
I was put in a room in isolation. This was incredibly distressing because there was nothing but a hard chair, a digital clock and everything was covered in metal, including the doors. I was calling for help, asking why nobody would help me. Eventually I fell asleep. I awoke to staff asking me to take medication. They were trying to give me a sedative. I told them I didn't want it and it wasn't the best form of care for me, I needed not to be in a cold, dark room by myself. But they insisted that I needed this and physically restrained me. They told me that if I refused the medication, they would physically inject me. I was open to medication, just not the one they were offering because I had previously had a negative experience with it.

I felt that I had no rights. I'm a grown adult, 6ft 1, size 20, and they knocked me to the ground to inject me.

I felt that I had no rights. I'm a grown adult, 6ft 1, size 20, and they knocked me to the ground to inject me. They pulled my trousers down so my bare arse was on show in the middle of the ward with all the other patients and nurses watching. It was humiliating.
As it was a Friday, I couldn't see a doctor until the following week so I stayed in the hospital all weekend. I wasn't allowed to leave and this made me very distressed because going for walks helps my mental health. I was refusing to take medication because it makes me suicidal but the nurses told me I was being obnoxious. Thankfully, that particular ward had a gym and there was a musician that visited to give us music therapy (which is not the norm). But it was being in that space that was making my condition worse.
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Hospitals are not a healing space for me. Nurses treat me like a nuisance and they get aggressive when trying to restrain or inject me with medication that I know will negatively affect me. They didn't understand that there were multiple triggers in the room: the colours, the smells, the alarm that went off every 10 minutes. I want to be well. I don't want to be forced here only to have to advocate for myself and experience violence. What's worse is that they bring student nurses or doctors to 'learn' from you. I'm not here as a guinea pig; I'm here to get better and go home.

There was no need for me to be in isolation, forcibly injected or physically restrained by the police. It is not helping, it is not conducive to healing.

In reality, and in my opinion, sectioning is not a solution. It's a carceral response to the mental health crisis. There was no need for me to be in isolation, forcibly injected or physically restrained by the police. It is not helping, it is not conducive to healing. As a Black woman, these experiences are horrible. The majority of Black people killed in police custody are those with mental health issues and people die from being physically restrained and forcibly injected. That's the level of trauma I have been processing since June, the reality of how violent the system is, how it's upheld and supported by those who believe they are doing their job.
Hospitals should be places of care but often they are not for those with mental illnesses. Treatment isn't based on healing or happiness, the whole point is risk. When I'm depressed, I'm 'only' at risk to myself and the same level of intervention isn't given, just antidepressants and a therapy waiting list. When the problem is externalised, I'm immediately locked away. Neither results in treatment or care.
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Overwhelmingly, I believe people need to rethink how they want to support their friends and loved ones. Bipolar disorder is continuous and ever present, not just when it presents as a manic episode. A hospital stay is a plaster, not a solution, especially when the only care given is medication and observation. They need to understand that these places are not spaces for healing. We need to be more open about that and hopefully people will be able to receive the help and support they need.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
If you are struggling with your mental health, help is available. Contact Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463. If you need urgent help, call the Samaritans on 116 123.

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