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'We must stop black men dying in custody'

DEATHS IN CUSTODY: Johnathan Andel and Sean Rigg

FOR PEOPLE from the UK’s African Caribbean communities, deaths in custody and mental health care are, sadly, inextricably linked.

While by no means an exclusively black issue, the cases of Kingsley Burell-Brown, Sean Rigg, Olaseni Lewis, Alvan Thompson, Fitz Hicks, Mikey Powell, Roger Sylvester and, most recently, Johnathan Andel is evidence that deaths in custody, particularly within the mental health system, is hitting black Britons hardest.

Johnathan Andel is just the latest in a long line of healthy young black men who have lost their lives while in the care of mental health services, leaving yet another heartbroken family seeking answers for his death.

Their decision to take on a David and Goliath-type battle to uncover exactly how their loved one has died while in the care of the state has denied them any opportunity to even begin the grieving process.

But without such answers it is difficult to see how closure on such a traumatic incident can be achieved.

People from the UK’s African Caribbean communities continue to be over represented within the most secure parts of the mental health system, where a significant number of these fatalities occur.

It is now common knowledge that black people are subject to detention under the Mental Health Act in far greater numbers than their white counterparts, even though there isn’t a higher prevalence of mental illness within this group.

Compulsion and coercion typify the black patient experience. This is borne out by figures from a series of reports by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) on ethnicity and mental health, which shows that black patients are 29 per cent more likely to be forcibly restrained, 50 per cent more likely to be placed in seclusion and given far more likely to be labelled as psychotic and given much higher doses of antipsychotic medication than their white counterparts.

The treatment of this patient group when in this system is undeniably a factor in the disturbing numbers of preventable deaths which occur. People detained under the Mental Health Act account for 60 per cent of those who lose their lives in the care of the state. But while fatalities in this sector far outnumber that of any other custodial setting, unlike deaths in police or prison custody, where an inquest is based on the investigation conducted by an independent body, no such equivalent independent mechanism exists for mental health.

MAKING THE LINK: Matilda MacAttram

It is questionable how it is possible for a mental health trust to be independent when investigating a death or serious incident, which may have been caused or contributed to by the failures of its own staff and systems. In a submission to the Home Affairs Select Committee during its investigation into the IPCC in 2012, Black Mental Health UK (BHM UK) echoed the calls of the parliamentary joint committee on human rights which recommended back in 2004 that there should be an independent body to investigate the deaths of people detained under the Mental Health Act.

While this will never bring back a loved one, it would help grieving families to being the process of getting closure on such incidents. An independent body could also play a part in ensuring that statutory health providers actually learn the lessons from such tragedies in order to prevent them from occurring again.

With the death of Johnathan Andel coming so fast on the heels of the high-profile Sean Rigg inquest verdict, it would appear that nothing has is really changing quick enough to improve the treatment and care of black patients in the care of mental health services.

In 2013, a number of inquests into high profile black deaths in custody cases are expected to be heard, which makes this a particularly live issue for this community and the wider human rights and social justice movement that the Government would be wise not to ignore. As well as Mark Duggan and Smiley Culture, the inquest into the disturbing case of Masters graduate Olaseni Lewis is due to begin this spring.

Lewis, like Andel, was a voluntary patient. The 23-year-old Masters graduate, died after he was restrained by 11 police officers who were called onto the ward by staff at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust back in 2010.

It will be almost three years before the Lewis family find out exactly how Olaseni lost his life. No family should have to wait this long. It sends a clear message on the value that society has been put on the lives of those who die in this system. This in itself is an injustice which needs to change.

Matilda MacAttram is director of Black Mental Health UK. It aims to reduce inequalities in the treatment and care of people from African Caribbean communities who use mental health services.

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