Human rights and mental health are not two separate ideas. Here are just a few ways human rights have helped people with mental health issues.
1. Hospitals have a duty of care to protect the right to life of people with mental illness
There are several important cases where health authorities and hospitals have been found to have a duty to protect the right to life of mentally ill patients. The courts recognise that mentally ill patients are a particularly vulnerable group, meaning they deserve protection.
One case concerned a young woman who was discharged from hospital despite being judged to be at ‘high risk’ of taking her own life. She hanged herself the next day, and her parents were able to rely on human rights law to ensure that hospitals would be prevented from making similar mistakes in future.
2. Nobody should have to prove they are of sound mind in order to be released from hospital
Thanks to human rights, it is not up to people kept in mental hospitals to prove they are of ‘sound mind’ in order to secure their own release. Rather, the responsibility is on the state to demonstrate why they should continue to be detained.
The law changed after a case where a man with schizophrenia was kept in hospital against his will, even after his symptoms had reduced substantially. His only path to freedom was to try to prove he was now sane and suitable for release.
The judges held that it was unreasonable to expect the patient to find evidence that would demonstrate his sanity. Instead, it should be up to the mental hospital to show at regular intervals why detention continued to be necessary.
3. After recovery, hospitals should not unreasonably delay a patient’s release into the community
Not only is the emphasis on the authorities to prove why a patient should continue to be detained, they must also release people as soon as possible. The ruling comes after the case of Mr Johnson, who suffered from schizophrenia and was detained in a secure psychiatric institution.
After five years, a review into his case found that he was free of symptoms of mental illness and should be set free. However, the review also recommended that he be initially placed in a specialist hostel.
Due to difficulties in finding such accommodation, Mr Johnson was not released until four years after the review. The Human Rights Court found that there had been inadequate safeguards against unreasonable delay, and that Mr Johnson’s right to liberty had unfairly been violated.
4. Mentally ill patients should be removed from immigration detention if they cannot be properly cared for there
The High Court ruled that the continued detention of a man with paranoid schizophrenia in an Immigration Removal Centre violated his right to protection from inhuman or degrading treatment, and should be considered wrongful imprisonment.
The man, known only by his initials, was a Nigerian asylum seeker whose behaviour whilst in detention had become increasingly disturbed, and strange. He had begun to behave in a manner which violated his own dignity, such as washing and drinking using water from a toilet.
The detention centre did not have the facilities to properly care for him and a psychiatrist urgently recommended that he be transferred to a mental hospital. However, this did not occur for several months and the court found that this delay was unreasonable – and had violated his human rights.
5. The welfare benefits system must treat people with mental health problems fairly
The UK system used to determine whether somebody should receive disability benefit asks that the person self-assess their ability to perform everyday tasks. In a 2013 case, the court found that this discriminated against those with mental health problems, as they were likely to lack insight into their own condition.
In addition, such people are often less able to navigate the health system in order to obtain supporting medical reports. The Department for Work and Pensions were asked to take steps to make their assessments fair to everyone.
These are just five cases, but help to illustrate just how human rights can be a vital tool to help fight for the rights of people affected by mental health issues.
For more information on mental health and human rights, take a look at these:
- For some background to the right to life, check out our explainer
- You can also see our explainer on the right to liberty
- See our feature on how human rights and mental health work together