Mental health network

Making mental health patients’ voices heard in the 2017 general election | Dr Jed Boardman

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Jed Boardman

As few as 14 per cent of eligible mental health inpatients cast votes in general elections. With just four weeks to go until polling day, Dr Jed Boardman outlines how mental health trusts can help patients under their care exercise their right to vote. 

With thanks to the Easter surprise laid by Theresa May, right now you are most likely on the receiving end of heavy bombardment from political parties contorting every which way to earn your vote. Politicians are, of course, only too aware that elections are determined by the people who show up to be counted. 

The snap election was called at a time when mental health has never been higher on the nation’s agenda. This is in no small part thanks to Princes Harry and William sharing their personal accounts of grief, which Ms May declared an important move to “smash the stigma of mental health”. 

But too often those with mental illnesses are not among those who show up and determine election outcomes.  Their voices go unheard, needs and concerns often uncounted. 

As few as 14 per cent of eligible mental health inpatients cast votes and 16 per cent of people with learning disabilities, compared to 66 per cent of the UK electorate as a whole. This is a stark difference, especially when two-thirds of people with mental illness would like to vote. 

Despite the efforts being poured into the drive towards achieving parity of esteem between mental and physical health services this most fundamental civil right is being neglected for people with mental illness.  

Amid the heat and noise of electioneering, the right of those eligible to cast their vote and have a say on how our country will be governed and public services delivered should be absolutely beyond question. This is especially critical for those suffering from mental ill health and people with learning disabilities, who are often most vulnerable to the actions, and inaction, of governments.

All people with a mental illness are entitled to vote, bar a small number convicted of criminal offences and ordered to hospital by the courts. Despite this, many patients with mental health problems are in effect disenfranchised due to practical and procedural barriers and a lack of awareness among patients and staff. 

Psychiatric inpatients are half as likely to be registered to vote.  Only 43 per cent of patients in one inpatient psychiatric ward were registered to vote, meaning they are unable to clear the first of many hurdles before they can cast a vote. Nine out of ten of these patients were not registered because didn’t know whether they were eligible to vote or how to register.  Of those registered, only a third cast a vote. 

Staff and patients alike need to have a clear understanding that an individual’s right to vote is not inherently changed by being a psychiatric inpatient. 

In the short space of time before the election, mental health trusts and their staff can take practical steps to highlight voting rights to staff and prevent patients under their care from being excluded from exercising their right to vote. 

Clearly display key voting rights information to all patients and staff, particularly:
  • Voters must be registered to vote by 22 May (or 23 for a postal vote).
  • Patients can register to vote by providing their address outside the hospital or the hospital address if it is regarded as their place of residence.
  • Information on who is eligible to vote.
  • How patients can get support to register and vote
  • Different ways to cast a vote (full information available in this voting rights information sheet for mental health patients).
Information should be clearly displayed in each ward (for example with a poster), on trusts’ websites and intranet and staff knowledge and awareness increased by asking all staff to complete a questionnaire on voting rights. (Answers here!)

Promote voting rights and provide support:
A voting rights lead should be identified in every unit. 

  • A questionnaire should be issued to all patients to identify those who would like help to register or to vote.
  • Plans should be formulated to support patients to cast their vote, to cover specifics such as who will offer support and of what kind and whether s17 leave forms will be required if voting in person, recorded on a voting rights tracker (a template is available online).
  • Organising an event launch event for senior leadership to highlight the issue and possible actions that can be taken to improve the situation or a voting rights days where all staff focus on this issue. 
“A man without a vote is a man without protection,” politicians themselves have acknowledged.
 

Advocates for mental health and those suffering mental ill health, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Mental Health Network, will continue to fight their corner in this election and in future elections.  

Taking steps to enable and support patients to vote builds a louder political voice for their needs and creates the strongest incentive for politicians to act to better support those with mental illness and smash the stigma. 

Dr Jed Boardman is social inclusion lead at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Follow the organisation on Twitter @rcpsych

The resources linked to above have been produced by Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust as part of a joint campaign with the support of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to increase patients’ awareness of their voting rights and to enable staff to support patients who are eligible and want to use their vote. This includes a film featuring the viewpoints of existing patients and staff to highlight the need for better advice and support about who can and cannot vote. 

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