MH@H Mental Health, Society & Social Justice

Human Rights and Mental Illness

The words Human Rights with hands reaching towards them
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948.  I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of its articles from the perspective of someone with mental illness, and throw in some assorted other observations as well.

Text in italic font is the actual text of the human rights declaration.  Some articles have been left out because they’re less relevant to this discussion.

Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

We may be endowed with reason, but sometimes mental illness can kick reason to the curb.  Be that as it may, we are still deserving of dignity, rights, and equality.  We are no less human because of our illnesses.

Article 2

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

In regards to this particular article, the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket – in the U.S. and the U.K. in particular, but the insanity is certainly not limited to those two countries.  While this article doesn’t explicitly include mental illness, I think it would reasonably be expected to fit in to “other status” and thus be deserving of full rights and freedoms.

Article 3

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

What comes to mind here is liberty in the context of involuntary detention under mental health legislation.  I know that sometimes it’s important and even life-saving, but that kind of deprivation of autonomy shouldn’t be treated lightly.

Article 4

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Seriously, it took until 1948 to set this in stone?  Yet slavery does continue, and is supported by human trafficking.  The Polaris Project reports that worldwide, over 40 million people have been victims of human trafficking. The purposes include forced labour and sex work.  These people are at high risk for PTSD because of the trauma they’ve endured, making this highly relevant to mental health.

Article 5 

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The antipsychiatry movement tends to portray the field of psychiatry as being in violation of this article.  Not all that long ago, this probably was the case (I’m thinking ice-pick lobotomies in particular here), but we’ve come a long way since then.

Article 6

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

I recently read a news story about the premier of the Canadian province of Ontario referring to a man with schizophrenia as an “animal”.  This man had killed another person while psychotic, and the courts had found him not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder.  While the premier failed to see him as a person, at least the courts did the right thing by recognizing that he was a human with a severe illness.  Still, it’s a disturbing example of the dehumanization of someone mentally ill.

Article 7

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

While laws prohibit discrimination on various grounds including disability, I’m not sure that, in a practical sense, people with mental illness have access to equal protection.  It’s difficult to prove that such discrimination exists and to demonstrate conclusively that the disability was the primary issue.

Article 8

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

As with the previous article, I’m not convinced that human rights tribunals can always be relied upon to protect the rights of people with invisible illnesses.  That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be such tribunals, but I do think more needs to be done to support people with mental illnesses.

Article 12

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

I think attacks upon the honour and reputation of people with mental illness happen on a disturbingly frequent basis, with very little that can be done by the people affected.  This needs to change.

Article 14

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Donald Trump’s administration seems to have overlooked this one, and chosen to criminalize asylum-seekers instead.  This serves to further traumatize people who are fleeing from areas where they were already faced with traumatic circumstances.  Again, this link to trauma makes this article very relevant to mental health.

Article 17

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a stretch to connect to mental health, but this brings to mind my post on cell phone bans on inpatient psych units.  Some things that hospitals take away from patients are for very good reasons, but I think there’s also some arbitrariness that slips in there as well, and not just with cell phones.  For me, this article underpins the violation I felt around arbitrary determinations of what I could or could not have.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

I find this one interesting in its lack of limitations.  With the prevalence of hatred and extremism in the world, my personal belief is that it’s a good thing to have some limitations on the unfettered expression of messages inciting hatred and violence.

Article 23

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Everyone has the right to work, but that doesn’t mean that employers will want to hire people with mental illness, or recognize that job interviews or certain aspects of workflow that tend to be taken for granted are extra tough when dealing with mental illness.  There are many ways that employers can easily circumvent these rights and face minimal consequences.

Article 25

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

I wrote a while ago about the overrepresentation of mentally ill people in the homeless population.  Depending on where you live, disability assistance may mean living well below the poverty line.  I can’t even imagine what it must be like for people living in poorer countries. Universal basic income would be a huge step towards addressing some of these inequalities.

It’s also interesting to note that while some would argue that health care is a privilege, according to this document, medical care is a basic human right.

Article 27

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

I think for a lot of us in the online mental health community, blogging, social media, and other forms of self-expression are important, meaningful ways to participate in the cultural life of the community.

The second part of this article is relevant to mental health bloggers who have experienced copyright infringement and plagiarism of their work.  There’s something about someone stealing my own words about my own mental health that is particularly galling.

Article 28

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

I hope that “social and international order” will come soon, but sadly, the world seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

This was the first time I’d ever read the declaration of human rights in its entirety.  There’s some good stuff in it, but there’s still quite a ways to go before the real world fully catches up to it.

Social justice and equality

You can find more on social issues on the Social Justice & Equality page.

25 thoughts on “Human Rights and Mental Illness”

      1. I’m gonna forward a piece that I have scheduled for late october. Given your expertise, can you proofread it for accuracy? It’s on the book “No one cares about crazy people.”

  1. Wow, Ashley… You certainly did your homework. I remember learning this in high school, and perhaps it was something that never really sunk in. But, I appreciate you writing this post. Sad, but we have a longs ways to go to ever equal up to these standards.

  2. Wow!! This is a hard subject for me–social studies–but you managed to make it accessible to my math-and-English-preferring brain!! Very interesting! So, dumb question, but I really am this weak at social studies… which countries does this apply to? Who’s in the United Nations?

    I agree about #19. Freedom of speech is great, but using it to promote extreme hatred or bad ideas (like going on a killing spree) doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe that’s somehow a different issue than saying, “I believe in such-and-such,”? I’m not sure! Huh.

  3. Donald Trump has overlooked most human rights in his continued quest to bring about the fall of America, and looks like Boris Johnson the same. But, well, signing on to the UN would be socialist, so none of those words need apply, right? Ugh. I’m not religious, so I don’t actually believe in an Antichrist, but I will admit I’ve seriously asked a few intolerant Trump supporting “Christians” to attempt to probe to me one of those two (or both) couldn’t claim the title according to Biblical criteria for the way they are destroying the social contract and wrapping themselves in flags and Bibles while they do… 🙁

  4. Oh Ashley, I wrote a bigger better comment and the network took it away argggghhhhhhhhhhhhh, anyways thank you so much for the post. Please could I use some of your inerpretations and reference you or this post?

  5. Thanks so much for the post, Ashley! This is DEFINITELY a big issue, one I hadn’t really thought much about until my own experience forced me to, and this post definitely helps to clarify as well. I’m particular curious about how these translate to those in institutions and other facilities, for example in #5, I wonder what constitutes “torture” for patients being treated… in my experience, it felt like an “anything goes” attitude since I seemed to have few rights as a patient, but mine is just the one experience.

      1. Yup, agreed! That was my experience! And it didn’t help that the facility was over-crowded and the staff was overworked, under-trained, and just plain wrong in some cases.

  6. I agree that there is a long way to go in terms of implementing the Declaration. Even so, it was intended as an aspirational document and it does provide an authoritative guideline. The drafters themselves were concerned that there was no strong mechanism to enforce it.

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