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UN health agency puts out guidebook to establishing legal rights for mentally ill

UN health agency puts out guidebook to establishing legal rights for mentally ill

Lee Jong-wook
As part of an ongoing effort to encourage legal protection for the more than 450 million people in the world with mental, neurological or behavioural disorders, the United Nations health agency today announced the publication of a book to guide countries and advocates in creating effective human rights laws for their benefit.

"We have a moral and legal obligation to modernize mental health legislation," said Dr. Lee Jong-wook, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). "WHO is ready to help its Member States fulfil this obligation with technical support and expert advice."

The WHO Resource Book on Mental Health, Human Rights and Legislation includes input from hundreds of experts throughout the world, including leaders in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, law, and human rights, as well as representatives from mental health service users, family groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The agency said that people with mental illnesses are among the most vulnerable in many places. Nearly a quarter of all countries have no mental health legislation, while many more have legislation that poorly protects the human rights of people with mental disorders.

In some communities, WHO said, people with mental disorders are chained to trees. Others are put in prison without having been accused of a crime. In many psychiatric institutions and hospitals, patients face gross violations of their rights. People are subject to a range of abuse, including being restrained with metal shackles, confined in cages, deprived of clothing, decent bedding, clean water or proper toilet facilities.

In addition, people with mental disorders often face severe stigmatization that results in what WHO calls additional human rights violations, including discrimination in education, employment and housing. In some countries they are prohibited from voting, marrying or having children.

The WHO Resource Book examines international human rights standards and shows how they apply to people with mental disorders. It addresses the rationale and methods for drafting, adopting and implementation of laws and linking them to mental health policy. The book also includes a 'step-by-step' checklist for reviewing existing legislation and developing new laws said.

Mental health issues will be WHO's focus on Human Rights Day, which falls on 10 December 2005.