Monday 30 May 2016

Sectioning people with dementia

Over the four years I’ve been writing this blog, I've met or been contacted by many families whose loved ones with dementia have been sectioned (detained in hospital without consent under the Mental Health Act). Sometimes the sectioning has occurred prior to a diagnosis of dementia, with the person then being diagnosed during their period of detention in a secure mental health hospital, and sometimes the sectioning has happened after a diagnosis and while they are living with a form of dementia.

Fortunately my father was never sectioned, which is just as well since I am opposed to it in relation to people with dementia in all but the most extreme circumstances. When I say extreme circumstances I'm talking about where a person with dementia is violently unwell and every effort has been made, prior to sectioning, to utilise every other avenue of care and support available.

As we know, people from all walks of life develop dementia, including people with long-term mental health disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar (manic-depression). The addition of a form of dementia for a person with a mental health disorder may result in a particular set of circumstances that makes sectioning necessary.

Equally, we know that dementia can itself cause significant changes in a person's personality, when they have no previous history of mental health illness. If those changes result in a person taking up a dangerous weapon and threatening themselves or others, again sectioning may be the only option.

These are, by any stretch of the imagination, extreme circumstances. They also affect a very, very small proportion of people with dementia. Yet figures published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre on 23rd October 2015, for the year 2014/15, showed that people aged 60 to 89 were most likely to be detained (Sectioned) under the Mental Health Act, with the number of detentions in each of these age groups (60-69, 70-79, 80-89 and 90 or over) all being over 43.0 per 100 people who spent time in hospital.

It would be a reasonable assumption, given that diagnosis of dementia is highest amongst older people, to suggest that dementia was a factor in many of these detentions. The question is, however, was sectioning the best form of care for these individuals? Most people with dementia live with progressive symptoms that cause them various challenges, and which the people around them need to respond to in ways that help to alleviate any distress they are feeling.

Sectioning is not a method of care that is likely to succeed in alleviating distress for the average person, or indeed for anyone bar those experiencing the most extreme symptoms and in the most extreme circumstances. It is most likely to result in a 'chemical cosh' being administered, and often that results in the long-term use of antipsychotic medication that is generally only removed if the person is fortunate enough to come into contact with clinicians and care professionals who have a more progressive outlook.

Fortunate is a word that I shouldn't need to use in relation to dementia care, but that is the harsh reality for some people who are living with dementia and being medicated to 'control' their 'behaviour'. Sectioning for a person with dementia, or someone who is suspected of having dementia, is a blunt tool that is still, in my opinion, used in circumstances that it should never be.

It can be used where healthcare professionals are wrongly assessing a situation, or don't have access to other methods of supporting a person with dementia - for example highly skilled social care that rehabilitates the person in a specialist care home environment that is designed for people with dementia and that provides person-centred, rehabilitative, therapeutic care.

It is sometimes used where a person with dementia is displaying 'challenging behaviour' (a term I dislike immensely) when in reality if their needs were met they wouldn't appear so distressed. In all bar the most extreme circumstances that I talk about above, a person with dementia lashing out isn't a sign that they need to be controlled by the means of a section if they won't 'co-operate' with the authorities.

Other circumstances I’ve heard of where a section has been used include carer burnout, where the family of the person have reached a complete breakdown. It’s pretty obvious, but if we supported family carers better to begin with such a circumstance wouldn’t develop. Another example can be extreme self-neglect, where a person living alone has neglected themselves to such an extent their life is in danger. Again, sectioning here is a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. With an earlier, gentler intervention the situation never needs to deteriorate to a point where a section is being considered or used.

I'm not na├»ve; I know that not every person with dementia will avoid spending time in a 'secure unit', much as I would like them to. My father spent one 3 month spell in a 'secure unit' at our local hospital, was medicated and lost half of his body weight, and I don't doubt that some of the people locked in that unit had been sectioned. I just feel that sectioning is the most severe end of mental health care and should be reserved for the extreme circumstances that I detailed above, not as a short cut to ‘dealing’ with a person who has dementia and isn’t ‘conforming’ to what others expect of them.

I dislike immensely the idea of controlling people with dementia, and sectioning effectively does that. Moreover, I question the long-term good it is likely to do. Dependency on medication, the development of a whole host of other health issues as a result, severe deterioration of the person’s dementia, and complete dependency on the health and social care systems for the rest of their life. It’s not a pretty picture.

The solution? That sectioning is seen as being the extreme, last resort event that it should be, rather than a go-to ‘solution’ for ‘problematic cases’. Improvements in awareness and education around dementia, particularly the understanding around the physical changes in the person’s brain. And most importantly, the embracing of person-centred, rehabilitative, therapeutic support, delivered in an environment that enables rather than disables the person with dementia.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886


  1. I couldn't agree more Beth: sectioning is far from a person centred approach to dementia. It is far from a pleasant experience when you have full cognitive capacity: as i know from personal experience. However in my case it was a means of keeping me safe until I sorted myself out: something I may have not been able to do if I had dementia.

  2. My dad has been sectioned as his partner could not cope. He is now being given medicine to calm him down as he has never had his liberty removed and he wants to be free. It could have been managed very differently. They read him the mental health act when he got upset and amgry! It's like a black comedy

    1. Sorry to read of your dad's experiences. As you say, it could have been handled differently, and for most people with dementia, should be handled differently. Best wishes to you and your family, Beth