Respecting the Dignity of People Suffering from Mental Illness

Philippe Pinel, often refferred to as "father of modern psychiatry" releasing people from their chains at the Salpêtrière Asylum, Paris, 1795 by Tony Robert-Fleury

Philippe Pinel, often referred to as “father of modern psychiatry” releasing people from their chains at the Salpêtrière Asylum, Paris, 1795, by Tony Robert-Fleury, (Brigdeman Art Library)

Oct. 10, 2015 – Research from post-conflict South Sudan reported that up to half the population met the symptoms for depression while another study found that 15 percent of ex-combatants wished they were dead.

Yet there are only twelve beds for treatment of mental illness in South Sudan and many of those with serious mental illness or disability are instead sent to prison where they are shackled and locked away for years on end.

World Mental Health Day is commemorated on Oct. 10th and the World Health Organization has declared dignity as the this year’s theme, noting that many people suffering from mental health are sent to institutions, deprived of their liberty and subject to inhuman and degrading conditions.

Yet, it is not only post-conflict developing countries where people suffering from mental illness are denied their inherent dignity. In the United States, prisons often serve as the functioning mental health system especially for the homeless, more than a third of whom suffer from a mental illness.

In China, there’s barely one psychiatrist for every 100,000 people, even though more than 17 percent of the adult population have a mental disorder at some stage of their lives.

For countries currently experiencing conflict, the treatment of mental illness is often neglected as over-burdened aid agencies focus on delivering food and trauma care. In Syria, for example, the World Health Organization said there’s a shortage of medication for those suffering from depression – and the number is growing – and other mental illnesses.

On this year’s Mental Health Day, WHO is calling for governments, communities and donors to invest in a holistic approach that respects the rights of those suffering from mental illness, and for treatment to not just focus on managing symptoms but on recovery so that people can achieve their full life’s potential.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz