Mental health care users are one of the most vulnerable, invisible and forgotten groups of people in our society.
Very often they are not in a position to eloquently state their concerns and grievances; there is still much stigma and discrimination against them; many face physical, sexual and psychological abuse, unfair denial of employment opportunities and discrimination in access to health care and other services.
There are also few organizations that represent the interests of those who suffer from severe mental illness, psychiatric, neurological or intellectual and or cognitive disabilities, illnesses or conditions. Those organizations that do exist tend to be poorly resourced and do not have the necessary resources to articulate the human rights concerns of this group sufficiently.
Issues concerning mental health have been brought to the SA Human Rights Commission’s attention on a number of occasions.
Mental hospitals, or health establishments as we call them in our legislation, evoke fear and suspicion - and with good reason! There are many reported cases from around the world of political dissidents being placed against their will in mental institutions in order to silence them. It is estimated that at least 3000 people have been sent to mental institutions because of their political views in the past two decades.
South African mental health legislation
Legislation is an important tool in ensuring that rights are protected.
The Mental Health Care Act passed in 2002 (and promulgated on 15 December 2004) seeks to ensure that the care, treatment and rehabilitation of persons who are mentally ill conforms to the constitution and in particular, the right to equality and dignity, which are founding principles as well as rights enshrined in our constitution.
The World Health Organisation, WHO, provides support to countries in developing and implementing progressive mental health laws that promote and protect the rights of people with mental disorders. WHO provides technical information and training on international human rights standards related to the rights of people with mental disorders, as well as practical guidance on steps required to assess, develop and implement progressive mental health law.
For more information on the rights of persons with intellectual disability, you may find the following documents useful:
UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities
Mental Health Care Act
Human rights violation register
WHO Resource Book on Mental Health
UN Resolution on protection of Persons with mental Illness
The Role of International Human Rights in National Mental Health Legislation