Strengthening Laws to Prevent Human Rights Abuses in Mental Healthcare: Lessons from Recent Cases

Strengthening Laws to Prevent Human Rights Abuses in Mental Healthcare: Lessons from Recent Cases


The world of mental healthcare is evolving, but challenges persist. It is in the crucible of these challenges that we find the pressing need to revisit and strengthen laws aimed at preventing human rights abuses within mental healthcare facilities. Recent cases have cast a stark spotlight on the urgency of this matter, reminding us that the protection of vulnerable individuals within these institutions must be a paramount concern.

The Case That Shook Us:

Legal protection has been provided to people with Mental health issues under the Mental Health Act 1987, the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995. In 2007, India also ratified UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and people with mental impairment. But the serious implementation of these legislations to protect the human rights of the mentally ill came into question after the Erwadi Fire accident in 2001, which caused the death of 28 mentally ill patients were chained in a faith based ‘mental asylum’ at Erwadi Village, Tamil Nadu.

In another case reported in ‘Journal of Psychiatry ‘, 2014 by Anvar Sadath, Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, India. Mr. K, a 41-year-old man from a rural village in South India, faced a long and difficult journey due to his lower socio-economic status. Initially a well-adjusted individual, he was among the few in his village to have graduated. However, his life took a tragic turn when he was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia at the age of 20.

Approximately 17 years ago, he sought treatment at a tertiary care center, but his inability to afford and access medications forced him to discontinue treatment within a year. As a result, his condition deteriorated significantly. Mr. K’s behavior became increasingly challenging for his family to manage, leading them to confine him to a room in their home in 1997.

His living conditions were deplorable. He was confined to a small, poorly ventilated room on the terrace of the house, devoid of sanitary facilities. Food was passed to him through a small window whenever he signaled his hunger by making noise or throwing objects. Personal care was neglected during this long period of isolation.

Six years later, the situation worsened as the room was divided into two even smaller spaces. Mr. K’s room had no door, only a small window. His plight remained hidden from the world until a local journalist uncovered the shocking truth and published it in the local newspaper.

Following the media exposure, local government representatives, along with the regional health team, intervened and secured Mr. K’s release from solitary confinement. He was brought to a medical institute for treatment. At the time of admission, Mr. K’s physical and mental health had deteriorated significantly. His hair was matted and overgrown, and communication with him was nearly impossible. He could only respond with occasional grunts. Furthermore, he had a swelling in his cervical lymph nodes, later diagnosed as tubercular lymphadenitis.

After approximately three months of treatment with antipsychotic medication at the institute, Mr. K showed remarkable improvement. As his condition stabilized, he was transferred to a government-run rehabilitation facility near his hometown, with the active support of the district administration. Over the subsequent eight months, Mr. K continued to make progress under the care of his dedicated psychiatrist, reclaiming a sense of normalcy in his life.

Understanding the Landscape:

Before delving into the guidelines for improving mental healthcare laws, it’s essential to understand the broader context:

1. The Vulnerable Population:

– Individuals seeking mental healthcare are often in vulnerable states, grappling with conditions that impair their capacity to advocate for themselves.

2. The Hidden Problem:

– Human rights abuses in mental healthcare facilities can be insidious, with many cases going unreported due to patient isolation and the stigma surrounding mental health.

3. The Legal Framework:

– Most countries have laws in place to protect mental healthcare patients. However, these laws may be outdated or lack the teeth needed for effective enforcement.

Guidelines for Reform:

In light of recent cases and the evolving landscape of mental healthcare, here are key guidelines for improving laws to prevent human rights abuses:

1. Comprehensive Oversight:

– Establish robust oversight mechanisms to monitor mental healthcare facilities. Independent agencies should regularly inspect these institutions to ensure compliance with human rights standards.

2. Patient Advocacy:

– Empower patients with access to advocates who can represent their interests. This advocate should be separate from the healthcare facility, ensuring objectivity.

3. Transparency and Reporting:

– Require mental healthcare facilities to maintain transparent records and promptly report any incidents of abuse. Whistleblower protection should be in place to encourage reporting.

4. Training and Education:

– Mandate comprehensive training for mental healthcare staff on patient rights and the prevention of abuse. This should include de-escalation techniques and empathy training.

5. Legal Recourse:

– Ensure that patients have accessible avenues for legal recourse in case of abuse. Legal aid services should be readily available to them.

International Standards:

1. Adopting International Frameworks:

– Align national mental healthcare laws with international human rights frameworks, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

2. Sharing Best Practices:

– Collaborate with other nations to exchange best practices and learn from successful initiatives that have improved patient care and protection.

Public Awareness:

1. Destigmatize Mental Health:

– Launch public awareness campaigns to destigmatize mental health conditions. Reducing the stigma will encourage reporting and improve patient advocacy.

Funding and Resources:

1. Adequate Funding:

– Allocate sufficient resources to mental healthcare services to ensure staff are well-trained, facilities are well-maintained, and patient rights are upheld.


Recent cases of human rights abuses in mental healthcare facilities serve as a stark reminder that reform is imperative. By implementing these guidelines and fostering collaboration on both national and international levels, we can work toward a mental healthcare system that not only treats mental health conditions but also upholds the fundamental human rights of every patient. The time for change is now, and it begins with the strengthening of our laws and the reaffirmation of our commitment to protect the vulnerable among us.

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