A Way Forward – Mental Health as a Human Right


Mental health sits at the foundation of general human wellbeing. Human rights stand as a universalist vision of the international community of nations and citizens. If we want an equitable world, we need health global citizens with equal opportunity and stature.

Human rights and mental health are a united front for the equal treatment of all. Human rights mean every human being is provided the same privileges and responsibilities. Mental health is something for everyone to strive to attain and maintain for a better life.

On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created the foundation for an international human rights and rules based global order. Everyone, in theory, acquires the same rights, becomes subject to the same laws, and operates within the same boundaries.

Personal development deals with individual people who each have a mental status: healthy or unhealthy. For proper functioning in a society, in relationship, in professional life, in individual self-management and self-care, mental health reigns supreme.

In a sense, without mental health, we can’t have professional life health, relationship health, or societal health. It’s bottom up. It starts with an apparent irreducible component of the field of psychology, individual human personalities.

Therefore, ill societies are comprised of ill individuals; healthy societies are composed of healthy individuals. To make incremental change or piecemeal reform to the health status of societies, we should focus on individuals, individual needs, and personal development as these over time.

A fundamental basis of the international rights and rules based order is the idea of the rights as principles. In general, these principles, human rights as such, mean broad ethical principles with legal and social import for freedoms and entitlements.

The tacit implication behind human rights freedoms and entitlements is the consequent need for obligations and duties. If you want a right, then you purchase a responsibility as a consequence of it. It’s a two-part deal.

Individual human rights follow from the ideas of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In that, the rights inhere, tie to, individual human beings. You have rights and obligations. I have rights and obligations. Same with our neighbours. We have right to exercise them, too.

One obscure idea in the United Nations is the idea of autonymity. I do not see the term used much, but I see the concept used all the time. It’s foundational to rights. If you have ethical principles, what is the point without the ability to exercise them.

Take, for example, the right to freedom of expression; it’s a fundamental human right. By writing this article in this forum with this particular formulation of ideas, I am exercising the right to freedom of expression.

Even with rare formalization with the explicit use of the term, it’s a hugely consequential idea. The concept of guarding, keeping, the right to exercise all other rights. The idea, typically, is applied to use of names, as in autonymity.

It means “inalienable personal rights which may be exercised in any situation.” In the domain of mental health and the cross-sect of individual fundamental human rights, the question arises, “What is the relevance of human rights and mental health?” It’s a good question.

With some more thought, it is a profound question with deep, lasting consequences for our lives and, as argued above, societies’ health. One would need to connect human rights to mental health in a direct way.

Where, a basic international human rights argument is made for the right to mental health. Following this, the “inalienable personal rights which may be exercised in any situation” become relevant to psychological wellness.

In fact, this has been argued, directly, by the United Nations. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in “Mental health is a human right.” If we take this foundational part of the United Nations and the article, some of the core paragraphs include the following:

In a recent report on the right to mental health, the UN right to health expert, Mr. Dainius Pūras, pointed out that despite evidence that there cannot be health without mental health, nowhere in the world does mental health enjoy parity with physical health in terms of budgeting, or medical education and practice…

…A report by the UN Human Rights office points out that people with mental health conditions and those with psychosocial disabilities experience disproportionately higher rates of poor physical health; and have a reduced life expectancy – a 20-year drop for men and 15 years for women – compared with the general population. Stigma is also a significant determinant of quality care and access to the full range of services they require…

…Discrimination, harmful stereotypes and stigma in the community, family, schools and the workplace prevent healthy relationships, social interactions and the inclusive environments that are needed for anyone’s well-being…

For the UN health expert, Dainius Pūras also, recognizing the diversity of human experience and the multitude of ways in which people process life needs to be more broadly understood.

“Respecting that diversity is crucial to ending discrimination,” he writes in his report. “Peer-led movements and self-help groups, which help to normalize human experiences that are considered unconventional, contribute towards more tolerant, peaceful and just societies,” he says. 

The extended quote at the end seems the most important because the emphasis is on some of the facets of the work on the “peer-led movements and self-help groups.”

The fact of the matter, the international community lacks proper comprehension of the issues of mental health and, even if they have the understanding, do not have the appropriate infrastructure to deal with it.

It’s not only the OHCHR working on bringing this need to public global attention. In Canada, a number of efforts exist here. A number of public statements have been made about the importance of public mental health. Ontario Human Rights Commission works with a number of communities and partners.

Some of those include the CAMH Empowerment Council, Canadian Mental Health Association – Ontario Branch, Canadian Mental Health Association – Ottawa Branch, Canadian Mental Health Association – Toronto Branch, and Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and more.

Internationally, the World Health Organization states, “We are facing a global human rights emergency in mental health. All over the world people with mental disabilities experience a wide range of human rights violations…”

They continue, “Mental health policies and laws are absent or inadequate in most countries of the world and yet they are critical to improving conditions for people with mental disabilities… All people and professionals who have an impact on the lives of people with mental disabilities should receive training on human rights issues.”

South, to the United States, the American Psychological Association stipulated:

During the 183rd plenary meeting on Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 25, which states that: “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…

…The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is an inter-governmental body within the UN’s system that is made up of 47 countries elected from the full membership. The council is responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe, and it views physical and mental health as a central tenet of its work…

…The preamble to the 1946 Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The relationship between mental health and human rights is an integral and interdependent one…

…The UN right to health expert, Special Rapporteur Dainius Pūras, states that one of the most basic challenges to mental health is stigma and discrimination.

Those should make the emphasis clearer. These can create the basis for a better knowledge of the interconnectedness of international, national, and provincial efforts to improve both the status of human rights and the mental health of citizens.

Similarly, direct efforts at improving the conditions of human rights through increased mental health are ongoing, the question, at this point, shouldn’t be, “What is the relation of human rights and mental health?”

Rather, it should be, “What is the best way in which to implement human rights to improve international mental health at an individual level?” Fundamentally, this is the question. It is not a singular solution. Because it’s a plural problem.

This hydra will require targeted interventions and community-based interventions to work on specific, individualized issues. There’s anxiety, depression, narcissism, psychopathy/sociopathy (antisocial personality disorder), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and so on.

Each one has a differentiated formal solution. Every one with multiple ways to combat them in better and worse ways.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


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