Human Rights As They Pertain To People In Mental Health Treatment

An OpEdNews.com piece on human rights and mental health law, Mental Health Human Rights – “Case Law in Europe”, as is so often the case, frames the situation much too
narrowly.

When they first confront the mental health system, many do not realize what their rights are under US civil law or under international human right law. There are routine human rights abuses by those entrusted with the care, treatment, and social support to those with mental health disabilities. Persons who are experiencing mental health challenges or who have a mental health disability have difficulty expressing their needs and to bring forth allegations of neglect or abuse. There are several concepts within human rights mental health law that human rights advocates and those who advocate for the disabled should know.

A basic problem concerns the subject of these human rights abuses. “Persons who are experiencing mental health challenges or who have a mental health disability” makes a number of assumptions, one of which is that people are necessarily in mental health treatment because they have a “mental illness”, and that there is always a need for such treatment. We know that people get falsely convicted of crimes that they didn’t commit, and if mistakes happen in the criminal justice system, well, they happen in the mental health/illness system, too.

Mental health administrators and workers in places where there is little oversight or true legal representation on the receiving end, constitute in themselves a loophole around the law as it is written. What law is going to safeguard human rights without any sort of enforcement?

Human rights concern the way laws are applied to all people. This separation of people into “those experiencing mental health challenges or who have a mental health disability” and everybody else is unhelpful. The same applies to people deemed to have physical “disabilities”. It’s not that a “disability” makes a person “special”; it’s that, for some reason, people see fit to treat handicapped people differently. Consideration for people who are fit, without consideration for people who are less fit, or who have lost that fitness, is callous disregard and just doesn’t pass mustard.

What followed was an attempt to tackle the issue of informed consent.

“Patients should, as a matter of principle, be placed in a position to give their free and informed consent to treatment. The admission of a person to a psychiatric establishment on an involuntary basis should not be construed as authorising treatment without his consent. It follows that every competent patient, whether voluntary or involuntary, should be given the opportunity to refuse treatment or any other medical intervention. Any derogation from this fundamental principle should be based upon law and only relate to clearly and strictly defined exceptional circumstances.”

Where is there any “admission of a person to a psychiatric establishment on an involuntary basis” that does not involve “treatment”? Are you trying to infer that confinement in itself is neither a human rights violation nor a “treatment”? “Free and informed consent” are issues, surely, but once the person is admitted “on an involuntary basis”, no consent is “free”, and the extent of it’s being informed is a matter that must be seriously questioned as you are not getting this information from any independent source. The “involuntary” admission authorities are, of course, going to brush off any downside to “treatment” in favor of it’s upside.

After tackling detainment, right to a speedy review, psychiatric “medication”, and capacity or lack thereof, the article concludes…

These are just some of the basic principles of human rights of persons with a mental health disability.

I’m back to the argument I started with initially. Human rights are not “people with mental health disabilities” rights. Human rights do not apply to people who are “disabled” because they are “disabled” but, rather, they apply to people who are “disabled” because they are human beings. Human rights are rights human beings are entitled to by virtue of their humanity. The dilemma that this and other suchlike articles are trying to address arises from the fact that we have mental health laws and other such laws that violate constitutional and international laws recognizing and safeguarding those human rights.

Once upon a time people in slavery in the USA were accounted at the value of a fraction of the value of a person not held in slavery. This accounting meant that slaves were perceived as being less than complete human beings. The Declaration of Independence that signaled a call to arms for our War of Independence stated all men were created equal. This document was not intended to extend that definition to include slaves and women. The extension of this declared equality to include black people and women has been the aim of many populist and heroic struggles of the past. Much of this extension has been accomplished, but once you have included black people and woman, then there is the little matter of other under valued and devalued peoples.

Gay people, homeless people, people labeled mentally ill, poor people and other marginalized and disenfranchised populations have yet to achieve complete equality of opportunity with people who have achieved that objective as conceived by our forebears. Part of the reason for this situation is that sometimes the present law of the land is archaic, constitutes an impediment to progress, and needs amending. Put simply, there is much that remains to be done.

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7 Responses

  1. Yes, I agree, people should realize that human rights apply to all people equally.

    • Great! I’m not sure I agree with myself. 😉

      The one thing you have to realize here is that human rights are not the laws enacted to protect and insure human rights. Some advocates don’t seem to make this rather basic connection. There are human rights, in fact, that may not have made their way into legislative acts–at least, not yet. When a human right is protected by law, you have a civil right, a right by law, and we know what a bug-a-boo those can be to uphold and protect. It’s more than a matter of what you can do through the law, it’s also a matter of seeing why you do it. We’re not then only looking at the law as it exists, we’re also looking at the changes we would have made to that law. Every year every state legislature has a big powwow expressly to work on those laws. They aren’t static, so we’re not dealing the law only as it is, we’re also dealing with the law as it will be, and as it can be.

  2. To me, you’re referring to “natural rights,” rights that are not enshrined in law or the Constitution. Great legal and philosophical tomes have been written discussing what they are, if they exist or how a person can go about securing them.

    To me, one of the most important of these rights in modern society is the right to be left alone, the right to refuse to engage with people not of one’s choosing. With this right comes the responsibility of allowing others to also exercise this right.

    Coercive mental health practitioners presume that they stand above this, that they know better than the patient. It’s for “the patient’s own good” for them to intrude and interfere. Not until we relieve mental health practitioners of this attitude will there be any sort of rights for their hapless victims.

    • The idea of natural rights existed prior to the idea of human rights that evolved out of it. According to the thinkers who developed the concept of natural rights, ants would not be governed by the sames laws, nature’s this time, as would human beings. The natural rights accorded human beings then differ from those accorded other species, and these rights are deserving of our respect and consideration. The point is that humans need to be conscious of what separates them from cows and fishes when drafting those laws used to govern themselves. Cow law, fish law, lion law, mouse law, etc. Many other species live in a tyrannical manner in relation to what would be accounted human law.

      I couldn’t agree with you more about being left alone. While some people seek and desire mental health treatment, there are others who have no wish whatsoever for such treatment. Forcing mental health treatment on such a person is an infringement of some of the most basic rights we accord our species. You’re taking away his or her right to liberty for one thing. My view of the matter is that the person who just wants to be left alone as you put it, this person is much closer to anything that could be accounted mental health than is the person who has an unquenchable craving for mental health treatment. When treatment is not forced, you’ve got a situation much like that depicted in Jean Paul Sartre’s theatrical version of hell, No Exit. Here are people in misery. There’s the door. Why is nobody taking it?

      Convincing people, mental health practitioners and others, to respect human rights is something we still have to work on. It’s not a matter of mental patient rights, or mental health consumer rights, we’re talking about here, it’s a matter of human rights. When people forget or discount that they’re dealing with human beings, those rights get violated.

  3. I may misunderstand you, but you seem to suggest that if people believe they need mental health treatment, and engage in such treatment, they automatically run a risk of having their human rights abused. That, to me, connotes that the patient/client is responsible in part for their human rights abuse, which to be constitutes victim-blaming. I may have misunderstood you however.

    • I have nothing against people seeking and receiving mental health treatment voluntarily if they want it. This is not something everybody wants. I am against that mental health treatment being imposed upon people who do not want it. Mental health law, as I see it, is a violation of human rights.

      When a person is said to have a chronic mental illness this is much the same as saying that a person is incurably insane. I don’t buy it. I think people can and do recover from serious mental illnesses, completely recover, and the chronicity part of it is all myth.

      I don’t want to blame the victim, but I don’t want to excuse a person of responsibility for his or her own victimization either. That is to say, I don’t think it’s a good idea for a person to assume the victim role. People have bad experiences, but they also have good experiences. A few bad experiences shouldn’t prevent anyone from having good experiences. I can blame a person for not getting beyond his or her victimization. There’s a life out there for the taking beyond any perpetual wallowing in a sty of self-pity. There are more roles for a person to assume in life besides that of victim. Don’t get stuck there!

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