China reforms mental health policies


In late October, China passed its first laws protecting the rights of the mentally ill. Human rights activists are thrilled, stating this is a step forward for the country, but warn that it may not help political and social outcasts trapped in psychiatric facilities.

Law emphasizes privacy and expanded services

The new law underscores privacy. It requires that institutions and individuals protect personal information, including names, addresses and employment information. The law bans involuntary mental health exams and treatment, except when a person shows intent to harm himself. Hospitals are now required to provide counseling services or outpatient clinics to help the mentally ill.

More than 100 million mentally ill

It is believed that there are more than 100 million mentally ill people in China. This is according to a 2007 survey by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. About 16 million of those people may have severe symptoms.

An end to political, involuntary commitment?

Another aim of the law is to end the practice of silencing dissidents and persons perceived as problematic by deeming them mentally ill, according to Nicholas Bequelin from the Hong Kong-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. The law now requires that patients have the right to an independent review of their cases. There are now clear nationwide procedures to appeal involuntary commitment, making it more difficult to use as a political tool.

Public authorities need more limits

Still, the law fails to reign in the power of the police in the mental health industry. China’s Ministry of Public Security will maintain the authority to run its own psychiatric institutions. “Allowing public security officials to hold control will do little to change the problem if there is no added system of checks and balances,” said Bequelin.



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