Mental health

Mental health, human rights & legislation

A global human rights emergency in mental health

We are facing a global human rights emergency in mental health. All over the world people with mental disabilities experience a wide range of human rights violations.

Human rights violations: abusive use of seclusion and restraint
Harrie Timmermans/Global Initiative on Psychiatry

In many countries people do not have access to basic mental health care and treatment they require. In others, the absence of community based mental health care means the only care available is in psychiatric institutions which are associated with gross human rights violations including inhuman and degrading treatment and living conditions.

Even outside the health care context, they are excluded from community life and denied basic rights such as shelter, food and clothing, and are discriminated against in the fields of employment, education and housing due to their mental disability. Many are denied the right to vote, marry and have children. As a consequence, many people with mental disabilities are living in extreme poverty which in turn, affects their ability to gain access to appropriate care, integrate into society and recover from their illness.

The UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities - new hope for rights protection

The work of the WHO is informed by the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The WHO Resource Book on Mental Health, Human Rights and Legislation has been withdrawn because it was drafted prior to the coming into force of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is therefore not compliant with the latest human rights norms and standards.

In 2008 the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) came into force. The Convention sets out a wide range of rights including, among others, civil and political rights, the right to live in the community, participation and inclusion, education, health, employment and social protection. Its coming into force marks a major milestone in efforts to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights of persons with disabilities.

A man crouches inside a mental health institution
A man crouches inside a mental health institution
Harrie Timmermans /Global Initiative on Psychiatry

What can be done?

Raise awareness and advocate for change

Violations often occur behind closed doors and go unreported - unless people know that they are going on, action cannot be taken to stop them. WHO works to raise awareness and advocate for the rights of people with mental disabilities and collaborates with international organizations to disseminate international human rights standards.

Develop mental health policies and laws that promote human rights

Mental health policies and laws are absent or inadequate in most countries of the world and yet they are critical to improving conditions for people with mental disabilities.

Create mechanisms to assess and improve human rights conditions

Many people with mental disabilities are assumed to have no capacity to make decisions for themselves and are therefore being detained and treated in psychiatric institutions unjustifiably and against their will, where they are being treated appallingly and inhumanely. The WHO QualityRights Project works to unite and empower people to improve the quality of care and promote human rights in mental health facilities and social care homes.

Train key stakeholders on the rights of people with mental disabilities

All people and professionals who have an impact on the lives of people with mental disabilities should receive training on human rights issues. Training needs to be provided to:

  • people with mental disabilities themselves as well as their families - so that they can claim their rights;
  • health and mental health professionals - so that they understand the rights of their patients and apply these in practice;
  • the police force who are in daily contact with people with mental disabilities;
  • lawyers, magistrates and judges who make important decisions concerning the lives of people with mental disabilities.

Contact details

Mental health policy and service development

Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, WHO Geneva.