Mental Health Human Rights

By Reinhard Dolp, MD, MSc, & Jennifer Pikard, MD, MSc

The Western World is flooded with public debates, newspaper articles, blogs, posts and TV-reports about mental illness and psychiatric care. Multiple psychiatric conferences and organizations such as the Red Cross offer courses on how psychiatrists can respond to natural and man-made disasters such as hurricanes and mass-shootings. However, it is well known that those with mental illness might never make it into the media because they may not have suffered natural disasters or war and are possibly those who live in countries where mental health is not a priority or simply not recognized. These people suffer worldwide yet many suffer in silence. No camera crew will document their lives, no public outcry will ever be held for them, and mass funding will not be geared towards improving their situation.

Food, education primary health care are needs which are all recognized undoubtedly as basic human rights and they are given a different stance. However, where does mental health fit in? The main difference is that mental health as a human right is a relatively new concept that is not yet accepted in many parts of the world and may compete with traditions, religious beliefs and stigma. It is evident that improving life becomes somewhat impossible when attempting to escape poverty and inhume living conditions across the globe, but what about those suffering from anxiety, addiction, depression? Should they not receive the same care available to others in societies around the world?

We are part of a group called Peace In Minds, a non-profit organization which attempts to introduce the concept of mental health as a basic human right to places where people only know about mental illness from the occasional media coverage. We have started by teaching the most basic psychiatric knowledge to teachers, prison guards, social workers and community leaders in Latin America.

When we first started our work in a coastal city in Ecuador, we encountered locals who felt uncomfortable speaking about mental health and expressed high emotion regarding feeling prepared to speak with someone with mental illness. We learned and spoke about how their local mental health network functions and helped to foster a safe space for speaking about mental wellbeing. But more than lecturing, we listened and answered questions, undoubtedly creating this safe space. The questions flooded in; the stories flooded in. We quickly learned that even if mental health is a social taboo in some societies, people are more than willing to learn, to talk, and to facilitate conversations with their friends, family and community. When we left, we left behind people who expressed that they feel more comfortable in talking to and about people suffering mental illness and fostered a community more comfortable talking about mental health. It doesn’t cease to amaze how willing people are to learn and to share their experiences with each other and ourselves. It only goes to show the amazing willingness and acceptance of others around the worlds surrounding mental health.