Western culture places a high value on freedom of the individual. We only justify the removal of freedoms when citizens transgress or are regarded as not fully human. Since the eighteenth century enlightenment, rationality has become the pinnacle of full humanity. People seen to lack rationality are easily denied full human status and full human freedoms; among them are slaves, women and mad people.  

There is a growing international movement to abolish special legislation allowing compulsory interventions on mad people. But in my own part of the world (Australia and New Zealand) compulsory interventions are a long way down the human rights agenda. Very few people worry about them or think to imagine a world without them. To them, compulsory interventions are inevitable and necessary – just like slavery and the disenfranchisement of women were once seen as inevitable and necessary.  

When progressive people began to challenge slavery and the disenfranchisement of women the establishment responded with arguments that are often laughable in hindsight. Today’s arguments in favour of compulsory interventions could also become tomorrow’s quaint historical baggage. In fact the arguments for restricting the freedoms of all three groups tend to echo each other within at least four distinct but interlocking themes.  

Firstly, the people are better off without their freedom. The people who supported slavery claimed that slaves needed to be protected from the world because they were not capable of living independently in the countries they had been brought to. And the people who believed women shouldn’t vote argued that women were suited to the domestic sphere and that involvement in politics was far too aggressive for them. One of the major arguments for compulsory interventions in mental health is that mad people need treatment, far more than they need freedom. Even if slaves, women and mad people wanted their freedom, the ‘benevolent’ authorities know better. 

Secondly, some people who have lost their freedom prefer it that way. It appears that some slaves were afraid of freedom and others were ‘Uncle Toms’ who were subservient and loyal to their masters. Similarly, when suffragette activity was at its height in England the majority of women didn’t agree they should have the vote. According to some research, a significant number of people receiving compulsory treatment either like it or feel ambivalent about it. This must bring additional certainty to authorities responsible for these restrictions in freedoms, who conveniently fail to see this concurrence as a feature of internalised oppression. 

Thirdly, removing people’s freedoms is necessary for social, economic or political order. The pro-slavery people, for instance, argued vehemently that the abolition of slavery would collapse the new world economies that had grown up on slave labour, with a ripple effect on the old world. Many people in the Victorian era thought the vote for women would undermine women’s and men’s separate roles in society – women occupied the domestic sphere while men occupied the public sphere. Advocates for compulsory treatment often claim that it is necessary for public safety. They believe that even if the consequences of freedom are good for some individuals, they would be bad for society.  

Fourthly, if the freedoms are granted the people will misuse them. During the debates on the abolition of slavery people worried that freed slaves could go on a rampage against their white masters. People who opposed the vote for women were concerned that enfranchised women might leave their domestic duties and go on to become members of parliament, opening up the possibility that a woman could be the Minister for War, roles which were beyond women’s capabilities. Advocates for compulsory treatment assume that mad people would kill themselves or harm others at a much increased rate. The establishment, fearing a backlash, claim that the people cannot be trusted to use their new freedoms constructively.  

What happened when slaves were freed and women got the vote? Certainly, none of the things that people feared. The African American population survived well with their freedom, slave owners were not slaughtered, economies did not collapse, men and women continued to coexist, and women succeeded in public life. Instead, the new freedoms for slaves and women raised their status and opportunities and created a more just and open society. While the social, economic or political order was changed, the fabric of society remained in one piece. 

Imagine a world without Mental Health Acts and other legislation that restricts the freedoms of people on the basis of their ‘mental disorder’. Imagine how it would raise the status and opportunities of mad people, how it would create a more just and open mental health system and society, how it would force services and society to find non-coercive ways to reduce harm and preserve personal, family and social order.  

My prediction is that the people in favour of compulsory interventions are on the wrong side of history, and the people against them are on the right side. Where would you rather be? As the playwright Henrick Ibsen once wrote: the person in the right is the person who is in league with the future.