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Can Mental Health Care Violate Human Rights?

Posted on Feb 21, 2014 by Ailee Slater ()  | Tags: mental health care, mental illness, health care human rights, WHO, substance abuse, Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan

The right to an education. The right to physical safety. The right to equality, and freedom. These are all considered human rights, but on December 13, 2013 – also known as Human Rights Day – the World Health Organization chose to focus on a lesser-discussed human right: the right of mental health patients to dignity, medical care, and better governmental oversight. 

According to WHO, human rights violations against the mentally unhealthy are occurring all over the world. In developing countries, a shortage of mental health professionals and a lack of awareness about mental disorders can prevent patients from accessing health care services, or even understanding the mental disorder they are experiencing. At the same time, patients who are treated for a mental illness may be hospitalized against their will, kept in uncomfortable or unsanitary conditions, and prevented from seeing family members.   

Developed nations, too, may be guilty of rights violations. In countries such as the United States, homelessness among the mentally ill is common: according to a 2011 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, around 30 percent of the chronically homeless are also in need of treatment for a mental illness, and other data shows that more than 60 percent of homeless people have experienced a mental problem at some point in their life. National policy, however, has yet to address the mentally ill homeless. 

To improve rights for the mental illness sufferers across the globe, WHO launched the program MiNDbank on Human Rights Day 2013. MiNDbank is an online database offering information about mental health strategies from organizations around the world. With resources from MiNDbank, hospitals, governmental leaders and WHO itself can observe which health care programs have been successful, and learn more about how to bring national mental health policies in line with international human rights standards. 

On MiNDbank, it’s possible to search for mental health resources by country; for example, users can click on France and read about the nation’s recent plan of action for improving treatment of autism patients. On Japan’s MiNDbank page it’s possible to learn about how the country proposes to decrease the number of beds in mental hospitals by 70,000 over the next 10 years, and on South Africa’s page users can read up on the 2007 Norms Manual for Severe Psychiatric Conditions. 

Along with this collection of mental health care information, MiNDbank has also compiled links to international human rights treaties, and U.N. and WHO resolutions related to mental health, disability and substance abuse. One such document is the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan, passed last year by WHO. This plan resolves to promote mental well being around the world, and reduce the death, disability or discrimination experienced by the mentally ill or handicapped. Some of the key actions of the Mental Health Action Plan include creating and supporting mental health organizations; giving more resources to poverty interventions; and more global dissemination of mental care strategies and resources. 

In the Mental Health Action Plan, readers are reminded that being healthy is more than just being free of disease: health refers to both physical and mental well being, which is why governments and health care organizations have a responsibility to address poverty and other socioeconomic factors that contribute to mental illness. Plan writers also call attention to the role of ethnicity, gender, race and sexual identity as examples of how individuals in certain societal groups might be at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems, and WHO calls upon policy makers to protect these vulnerable groups. 

In April 2007, the International Review of Psychiatry also addressed the mental health needs of non-mainstream groups. In an article entitled “Discrimination in Health Care Against People With Mental Illness,” King’s College London authors cited multiple studies showing that people belonging to an ethnic or racial minority wait longer than average to seek treatment for mental health issues, and that mental health services were more difficult to access in minority-heavy communities. 

These King’s College researchers also found that mental health patients of all races and socioeconomic statuses were experiencing stigma, and not just amongst friends and family but within treatment facilities, too. The Psychiatry article cites studies showing that psychiatrists are often pessimistic about their patients’ changes of recovery, and may be dismissive toward patients seen as being “responsible” for their own condition – those with an eating disorder, for example. 

This research, along with studies from WHO and other health care organizations, shows the need for mental health care improvements; in terms of both increasing resources to mental health organizations, as well as bettering mental health education and awareness. WHO is hoping that its MiNDbank will prove a useful tool for reforming mental health programs, reducing stigma and discrimination, and making mental care in all parts of the world adequate, appropriate to the patient at hand, and on-par with physical health services. 


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