1 What is mental capacity?
Mental capacity is not just a concept that is important for people using social and healthcare services. They are in need of health- or social care for reasons which may also mean they need support with decision making. Mental capacity is relevant to everyone else too. All of us are likely to need care when we are older. Many of us will be diagnosed with dementia and will find our ability to make decisions for ourselves declines. Even before old age, accidents and unforeseen illnesses can occur that can reduce our mental capacity. Life is unpredictable. Making sure we understand the implications of not having mental capacity while we have it can make a big difference to our lives and to those around us if we lose it.
Activity 1 What does mental capacity mean?
Search online to find different definitions of mental capacity. Try to find a medical definition and a legal one, and copy and paste the definitions into the text box below.
Then consider the similarities and differences between the two definitions. Identify words that are similar and different in the table below:
Now try to compose your own definition of mental capacity. This may be difficult at this stage but you can return to it at the end of the course and see if your thinking has changed.
Following are three example definitions of mental capacity, a dictionary definition, a medical definition and a legal definition. You may have found something like this.
Your capacity for something is your capacity to do it, or the amount of it you are able to do (Collins dictionary) – physical, financial, emotional, sensory - the technical facility, etc.
The power to hold, retain or contain, the ability to absorb (online medical dictionary)
Legal – the ability, capability or fitness to do something – a legal right, power, or competency to perform some act – an ability to comprehend both the nature and consequences of an act (online legal dictionary)
When you looked at the definitions and filled in the table you may have noted that these vary in the language that is used. For instance the dictionary definition refers to the extent to which a person is able to do something and also it includes physical as well as mental ability. The medical definition on the other hand refers more specifically to a person’s capacity to understand information and to retain this information. The legal definition meanwhile refers primarily to a person’s rights, competence and understanding.
A useful definition of mental capacity which encapsulates its key features is:
Mental capacity is the ability to make a particular decision or to take a particular action by any person for themselves at the time the decision or action needs to be taken.