What was the Mental Health Act 1959?


The Mental Health Act 1959 was an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom concerning England and Wales which had, as its main objectives, to abolish the distinction between psychiatric hospitals and other types of hospitals and to deinstituitionalise mental health patients and see them treated more by community care.

An Act to Repeal the Lunacy and mental Treatment Acts 1890 to 1930, and the Mental Deficiency Acts 1913 to 1938, and to make fresh provisions with respect to the treatment and care of mentally disordered persons and with respect to their property and affairs, and for purposes connected with matters aforesaid.

Refer to Chronology of UK Mental Health Legislation.


The Act also defined the term mental disorder for the first time: “mental illness as distinct from learning disability. The definition was “mental illness; arrest or incomplete development of mind; psychopathic disorder; and any other disorder or disability of mind”.

At the time, 0.4% of the population of England were housed in asylums, receiving the standard treatments of the time. Their treatment was considered by the 1957 Percy Commission (A central purpose of the Percy Commission was to assess the extent to which people with mental disorders could be treated as voluntary patients.) and the act resulted from its deliberations. The act was designed to make:

  • Treatment voluntary and informal; and
  • Where compulsory give it a proper legal framework and made as a medical decision; and
  • To move treatment, where possible, away from institutional care to that in the community.

The Act repealed the Lunacy and Mental Treatment Acts 1890 to 1930 and the Mental Deficiency Acts 1913 to 1938.

One of the changes introduced by the Act was the abolishment of the category of “moral imbecile”. The category, which had been introduced in 1913, had been defined in so vague terms that it had allowed also mothers of illegitimate children, especially in case of repeated births out of wedlock, to be regarded as “moral imbeciles” and thus to be placed in an institution for defectives or to be placed under guardianship.

Refer to Mental Health Act 1983, the Royal Commission on the Law Relating to Mental Illness and Mental Deficiency (scans of original document can be found here).

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