votingNew guidance has been launched that aims to encourage mental health patients and service users to register to vote and get their voice heard in the forthcoming general election.

Research found that in the 2010 election, mental health patients were half as likely to be registered to vote as the general population. This is despite mental health patients, including those detained under the Mental Health Act, having the same right to vote as the general population. However, in practice, they remain one of the most disenfranchised groups. A lack of information and understanding knowledge of their eligibility to vote or of the registration process led to voting turnout being as low as 14% in 2010 – a quarter of the turnout of the general population.

The guidance, launched today [March 30] by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Central and North West London NHS Trust, will be disseminated to all mental health trusts and NHS medical directors and provides information on who is eligible to vote, how patients can register to vote, and how they can cast their vote, including by post or by proxy.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Mental health has never been higher on the political agenda. But while much progress has been made in improving access to treatment and tackling the stigma around mental health, it is unacceptable that mental health patients are one of our most politically disenfranchised groups. 

“Voting gives people a political voice and allows them to exert political pressure. A vote in this context is more than a choice of party or candidate; it is a motivation for politicians to understand and support issues relevant to those with mental illness.

“It is unacceptable that 9 out of 10 of those who did not register to vote in 2010 were unaware either that they could even vote, or indeed how to go about the registration process. I am therefore delighted that this new guidance is being sent to all mental health trusts to increase the knowledge on voting rights amongst mental health professionals and empower patients to exercise their democratic rights and get their voices heard.”

Claire Murdoch, chief executive of Central North West London NHS Foundation Trust, added: “The right to vote is considered the hallmark of a civilized society. It is a fundamental right of individuals and something we are both proud of and rightly defend. It is clear that often people with mental health problems do not exercise their democratic right to vote and I am proud that colleagues at CNWL have worked on a way of tackling this inequality. Please do all you can to engage with service users to help them understand and exercise their right to vote if this is what they want to do. It’s important so please act now.”

Mark Winstanley, CEO of Rethink Mental Illness, said: “Mental health should be a top priority for the next Government, and it’s crucial that people with lived experience have a voice in the upcoming election. 

“Voting is a basic democratic right, and it’s unforgiveable that so many people with mental illness are missing out because they don’t have the support they need to take part. Many people in inpatient care don’t even realise they’re eligible to vote because there is so little information or encouragement available to help them.

“This has to change, and mental health trusts should play a leading role in addressing the problem. We urge them to act on this guidance, by supporting and empowering the people they care for to exercise their fundamental right to vote.”