Dr Suman Fernando

Leading Psychiatrist turns down OBE in protest at “deeply flawed” mental health bill

An eminent psychiatrist has turned down a Queen’s honour in protest at the government’s “deeply flawed” plans to extend compulsory powers of detention over the mentally ill.

Dr Suman Fernando, one of the country’s leading psychiatrists on mental health and race, was told last week by Downing Street that he had been nominated for an OBE for his “services to black and minority ethnic mental healthcare.”

But Dr Fernando has publicly rejected the honour, accusing NHS mental health services of being institutionally racist and fearing law changes proposed in a mental heath bill going through parliament would fail to address the disproportionate rate that black people are admitted to and detained in psychiatric hospitals.

Healthcare Commission statistics reveal that black people are three times more likely than white people to be compulsory detained in psychiatric hospital.

In 2003 an independent inquiry into the death of black Rastafarian David Bennett in the Norvic psychiatric clinic in Norwich highlighted a “festering abscess of institutionalised racism” in NHS mental health services.

The government is now almost half way through a five-year action plan – Delivering Race Equality In Mental Health Care – set up in response to the inquiry and which aims to end anti-discriminatory practice in mental health services.

However, Dr Fernando says the mental health bill, which this week completed its committee stage in the House of Commons, gives doctors further powers to compulsory detain patients and will exacerbate the discrimination of black and ethnic minority people.

Dr Fernando, a former Mental Health Commission inspector of psychiatric wards, wrote this week in a letter to Blair that he “cannot possibly accept it [OBE] while the government is pursuing its present policy regarding mental health legislation…the government bill currently before parliament is deeply flawed.”

He added: “What seems most strange is that the government say they want to recognise my services to black and minority healthcare at a time when they are trying to push through legislation that would make things worse for black people caught up in the mental health system.”

Dr Fernando believes that “at the very least” the bill should have a set of principles written into it to ensure that anti-discriminatory mental health practice is legally binding. Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has rejected this, but said such principles could be included in a code of practice.

Dr Fernando, a psychiatrist with 23 years experience and now visiting professor in applied social sciences at London Metropolitan University, is also angry that ministers “have not taken any notice” of a raft of other concerns aired by himself, other mental health professionals and law groups during a series of consultations over the bill. Critics fear the bill, which is a series of amendments to present law, threatens civil liberties and would lead to people being detained without therapeutic benefit.

“My plea to government is to withdraw the bill as it stands today and get back into a consultation mode,” Dr Fernando wrote in his rejection letter which he has also sent to the prime-minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown.

The government says the bill is a suitable balance between patient rights and protecting the public from dangerous people with a mental health diagnosis.

Dr Fernando worked as an NHS psychiatrist from 1970 to 1993, and has held a string of clinical and academic posts specialising in race and mental health.

From 1994 to 2001 he was vice chair of the Transcultural Psychiatry Special Interest group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and from 1989 to 1991 he served as a British representative on the World Psychiatric Association’s executive committee of transcultural psychiatry.

It is convention that those rejecting honours should do so privately. But Fernando’s decision follows that of poet Benjamin Zephaniah who in 2003 openly dismissed his award as a legacy of colonialism.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said she could not confirm or deny whether Dr Fernando had been nominated for an OBE, and was unable to add any further comments.

* Suman Fernando’s website: www.sumanfernando.com

* This news story first appeared in a shorter version at guardian.co.uk

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