X. v. the United Kingdom: Mental Health Activism and the Limits of the European Human Rights Regime, 1970-1983

Hamilton, Rosa, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Linstrum, Erik, History, University of Virginia

On 5 November 1981, the European Court of Human Rights published a landmark decision condemning the United Kingdom of human rights violations for its treatment of people with mental disabilities. Titled 'X. v. the United Kingdom,' the ruling forced Parliament to rewrite its mental health legislation under Britain’s obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. Hailed as a great advance for the rights of mental patients, the Mental Health Act of 1983 created Britain’s modern mental health regime and remains the basis for mental health legislation especially regarding patients’ rights, patient consent, and the forced institutionalization of the mentally disabled. Having had reform forced upon it by the European Court, however, Parliament played a largely passive role in these events. Instead, while X. v. the United Kingdom was the direct catalyst for change, I will show how the reforms of the early 1980s were a culmination of a decade-long battle waged throughout the 1970s by mental health activists and led by the mental health advocacy group, MIND. While radical critiques of psychiatric discourse and practice were not new to the 1970s, MIND’s pioneering activism combined these fundamental criticisms, largely drawn from the antipsychiatry of the 1960s, with a shifting, actionable, and pragmatic rights-based politics based on legal advocacy and representation, lobbying and political advising, and public campaigning and protests. However, in utilizing a pragmatic human rights language, MIND had to compromise on its deeper structural critiques even when it achieved many notable reforms.

MA (Master of Arts)
Britain, human rights, mental health activism, antipsychiatry, 1970s, Europe, European Court of Human Rights, European Union
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