How can the human rights of people with mental disorders be promoted and protected?

Online Q&A
5 October 2006

Q: How can the human rights of people with mental disorders be promoted and protected?

A: People with mental disorders around the world are exposed to a wide range of human rights violations. The stigma they face means they are often ostracized from society and fail to receive the care they require. In some communities, people with mental disorders are banished to the edge of town where they are left semi-naked or in rags, tied up, beaten and left to go hungry.

Patients in many mental hospitals fair little better. People are restrained with metal shackles, confined in caged beds, deprived of clothing, decent bedding, clean water or proper toilet facilities and are subject to abuse and neglect.

People with mental disorders also face discrimination on a daily basis including in the fields of education, employment and housing. Some countries even prohibit people from voting, marrying or having children.

How can these violations be prevented?

  • Change attitudes and raise awareness. Ministries of Health, mental health service user and family groups, health professionals, NGOs, academic institutions, professional organizations and other stakeholders should unify their efforts in educating and changing public attitudes towards mental illness and in advocating for the rights of people with mental disorders.

  • Improve human rights in mental health facilities. Mechanisms to monitor human rights should be established to protect against inhuman and degrading treatment, poor living conditions and inappropriate and arbitrary involuntary admission and treatment. People should also have access to complaints mechanisms in cases of human rights violations.

  • Empower mental health service users and families. Governments should support the creation and/or strengthening of mental health service user and families organizations. Such groups are in the best position to highlight problems, specify their needs, and help find solutions to improving mental health in countries and have a crucial role to play in the design and implementation of policies, plans, laws and services.

  • Replace psychiatric institutions with community care. Large institutions, which are so often associated with human rights violations, should be replaced by community mental health care facilities, backed by psychiatric beds in general hospital and home care support.

  • Increase investment in mental health. Governments need to dedicate more of their health budget to mental health. In addition the mental health workforce needs to be developed and trained to ensure that all people have access to good quality mental health services at each level of the health care system.

  • Adopt policies, laws and services that promote human rights. Countries should put in place mental health policies, laws and services that promote the rights of people with mental disorders, empower them to make choices about their lives, provide them with legal protections, and ensure their full integration and participation into the community.

WHO has initiated a global action programme to assist countries to create and implement coherent and comprehensive mental health policies, plans and legislation, and to ensure adequate mental health care is available at the community level. This includes development of human resources for mental health.

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