UN health agency calls for end to abuse of people with mental disorders

7 December 2005 – Alarmed that many of the 450 million people with mental disorders around the world are still stigmatized, abused and locked up under inhuman conditions, the World Health Organization (WHO) is dedicating International Human Rights Day, 10 December, to ending these practices.

"There are still far too many violations of the human rights of people with mental disorders. However, too often both the health and human rights agendas overlook these problems, and as a result, they slip between the cracks," said Dr. Lee Jong-wook, Director General of WHO.

“We have solutions to reverse the situation, in rich and poor countries alike,” Dr. Lee added, urging all concerned to take a “hard look” at the conditions endured by people with mental disorders.

To call attention to the issue on Human Rights Day, WHO is mounting an online photo essay entitled Forgotten People: Mental Health and Human Rights, which highlights some of these human rights violations, and gives examples of how they can and must be stopped.

More than 450 million people throughout the world have mental, neurological or behavioural problems, according to WHO. Yet 64 per cent of countries do not have any mental health legislation, or that which exists is out-of-date.

Misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental ill health are widespread, the agency said. Despite the existence of effective treatments for mental disorders, there is a belief that they are untreatable or that people with mental disorders are difficult, not intelligent, or incapable of making decisions. This stigma can lead to abuse, rejection and isolation and can exclude people from health care or support.

As the WHO photo essay reveals, some people are isolated and locked in cage-like rooms or restrained to their beds for extended periods of time with little or no human contact. Others are subject to the misuse of psychotropic medications. In some institutions patients lack proper clothing, clean water, adequate food or functioning toilet facilities.

On the positive side, WHO said that more and more countries are modernizing their mental health policies, services and laws. The health authorities of some 30 countries have recently joined a new WHO project which provides guidelines to improve access to high quality care in the community, end cruel and abusive treatment, eliminate stigma and discrimination, promote and protect human rights, and ultimately improve the lives of people with mental disorders.

“There has been a growing commitment to human rights in some of these policy and legal reform efforts,” said Dr Michelle Funk, Coordinator, Mental Health Policy and Service Development at WHO. “However an enormous amount of work remains before us. We must continue to do everything in our power to end human rights violations, discrimination and stigma.”

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