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WHO unveils new guidance on mental health

As the world marks Mental Health Day on Tuesday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) are jointly launching a new guidance entitled “Mental Health, Human Rights, and Legislation: Guidance and Practice”.

The guidance is poised to support countries in reforming legislation in order to end human rights abuses and increase access to quality mental health care.

According to the WHO, while many countries have sought to reform their laws, policies, and services since the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, too few have adopted or amended the relevant laws and policies on the scale needed to end abuses and promote human rights in mental health care.

In a press statement today, ahead of the 2023 World Mental Health Day celebrations on October 10, whose theme is ‘Mental health is a universal human right”, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said mental health is an integral and essential component of the right to health.

“This new guidance will support countries in making the changes needed to provide quality mental healthcare that assists a person’s recovery and respects their dignity, empowering people with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities to lead full and healthy lives in their communities,” he said.

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the publication offers guidance on how a rights-based approach can support the transformation needed in mental health systems.

“Our ambition must be to transform mental health services, not just in their reach but in their underlying values, so that they are truly responsive to the needs and dignity of the individual”, added Turk.

The guidance sets out what needs to be done to accelerate deinstitutionalization and embed a rights-based community approach to mental healthcare, which includes adopting legislation to gradually replace psychiatric institutions with inclusive community support systems and mainstream services, such as income support, housing assistance, and peer support networks.

The guidance also provides a checklist to be used by countries to assess and evaluate whether mental health-related legislation is compliant with international human rights obligations.

In addition, the guidance also sets out the importance of consulting persons with experience and their representative organisations as a critical part of this process, as well as the importance of public education and awareness on rights-based issues.

While the guidance also proposes a set of principles and provisions that can be mirrored in national legislation, countries may also adapt and tailor these to their specific circumstances, national context, languages, cultural sensitivities, legal systems, and others without compromising human rights standards.

Kenya, which is a member of WHO, has a Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015–2030 that highlights why mental health should be understood and is a key determinant of overall health and socio-economic development.

Last month, in September, the government launched national guidelines on workplace mental wellness, and according to the Ministry of Health, approximately 3.7 million Kenyans, out of 24.9 million in the workforce, grapple with mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar mood disorder.

World Mental Health Day 2023 is an opportunity for people and communities to unite to improve knowledge, raise awareness, and drive actions that promote and protect everyone’s mental health as a universal human right.

According to the WHO, having a mental health condition should never be a reason to deprive a person of their human rights or to exclude them from decisions about their own health.

By Wangari Ndirangu

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