George Szmukler, "Men in White Coats: Treatment Under Coercion" (Oxford UP, 2017)


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The laws that govern psychiatric treatment under coercion have remain largely unchanged since the eighteenth century. But this is not because of their effectiveness, rather, these laws cling to outdated notions of disability, mental illness and mental disorder why deny the fundamental rights of this category of people on an equal basis with all others. In Men in White Coats: Treatment Under Coercion (Oxford University Press, 2017) Professor George Szmukler examines the violation of these rights, such as the right to autonomy, self-determination, liberty, and security and integrity of the person in the context of the domestic laws which themselves perpetuate ongoing discrimination against people with mental impairments.

Tracing first the history of the medical coercion and involuntary treatment of people with mental illnesses and mental disorders, Professor Szmukler offers a potential path which he argues would end discrimination against this category of people. He puts forward a legal framework which is non-discriminatory and is based on a person's decision-making abilities and best interests, as opposed to a diagnosis. Crucially, he argues that this law is generic, and would not apply by reason of a person's mental disorder. His solution - Fusion Law - would better support people's autonomy, better engage with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and have significant social value by recognising the dignity and equality of people with mental health impairments. It would also have implications for the forensics system, in particular, with regards to defendants who have mental disorders.

Professor George Szmukler is a psychiatrist who started practising in the field as a trainee in 1972. He retired from clinical work in 2012, and is now an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and Society at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's college London. His major research now concerns methods of reducing compulsion and ’coercion’ in psychiatric care, for example, through the use of ’advance statements’. A related interest is mental health law, particularly the possibility of generic legislation centred on impaired decision-making capacity which would apply to all persons, regardless of the cause of the underlying disturbance of mental functioning.

Jane Richards is a doctoral student at the University of Hong Kong. You can find her on twitter where she follows all things related to human rights and Hong Kong politics @JaneRichardsHK

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