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

Online Q&A
26 March 2015

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

A: People with mental health conditions 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 or the services and support they need to lead full lives in the community. In some communities, people with mental health conditions are banished to the edge of town where they are left semi-naked or in rags, tied up, beaten and left to go hungry.

People 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 health conditions 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?

  • Ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The coming into force of the Convention is a major milestone in efforts to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights of people with disabilities. Countries should align their policies and laws to the Convention, ensuring that these promote autonomy, liberty, legal capacity, participation of people with mental health conditions, as well as the range of services required for independent community living.

  • Change attitudes and raise awareness. Ministries of Health, organizations of people with mental health conditions, health professionals, NGOs including Disabled Peoples’ Organizations 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. Ways to assess quality of care and human rights conditions should be established to protect against inhuman and degrading treatment, poor living conditions and involuntary admission and treatment. People should be able to file complaints in cases of human rights violations.

  • Empower people with mental health conditions and their families. Governments should support creating and/or strengthening of organizations of people with mental health conditions and as well as family organizations. Such groups are in the best position to highlight problems, specify their needs, and help find solutions to prevent violations and improving mental health and other required services in countries. They 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 services, backed by psychiatric beds in general hospital and home care support. Mental health services need to link to services and supports in the community, enabling people with mental health conditions to enjoy educational, employment, social service and housing opportunities on an equal basis with others.

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

The WHO QualityRights project aims to help countries to achieve these goals. The project supports governments to assess and improve quality and human rights conditions in mental health services. It alsobuilds capacity on human rights and recovery, empower people with mental health conditions through the strengthening of Disabled People’s Organizations, and reform national policies and legislation in line with international human rights standards.

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