China / Government

China adopts mental health law, protecting rights

(Xinhua) Updated: 2012-10-26 13:46

BEIJING - China's new mental health law, adopted on Friday, is expected to protect the rights of mentally ill people, reduce abuse and raise public awareness of mental disorders.

The Standing Committee of the 11th National People's Congress approved the bill at its bi-monthly session, which ran from Tuesday to Friday, after three readings.

Under the new law, there should be no infringements upon the dignity, personal safety or the property of mentally ill people.

The law also stipulates that institutions and individuals should protect the privacy of mentally ill people by preventing leaks of private information, such as their names, addresses and employment status, unless the sharing of such data is necessary for institutions and individuals while exercising their lawful duties.

China currently has about 16 million people suffering from severe mental disorders, according to the Ministry of Health.

Wang Shaoli, deputy head of the Beijing Huilongguan Hospital, a leading psychiatric hospital, told Xinhua that mental health is not only a medical problem but also a social problem that requires joint efforts from different sectors, not only hospitals.

"Under the new law, all sections of the society, including the government, non-governmental organizations and families, bear responsibilities in prevention and treatment of mental disorders," Wang said. "It will help promote the cause."

Wrongly institutionalized

The law has attracted great public attention since the draft was first submitted for discussion last October, largely due to increasing reports of incidents in which people were wrongly institutionalized.

On October 10, or World Mental Health Day, four people who claim to have been wrongly institutionalized sent written pleas to hospitals and courts across China, demanding fairer diagnoses of mental diseases and greater scrutiny of patients' custodians.

Among them was Chen Guoming, a former gold store owner, who was forced into an asylum in February 2011 by his wife and locked up for 56 days after refusing to lend money to his wife's family at their request.

When he was released, he found his wife had transferred nearly 800,000 yuan ($126,182) from his account and taken all of the jewelry in his store. His losses totaled 6 million yuan.

The law is expected to curb abuses regarding compulsory mental health treatment and protect citizens from undergoing unnecessary treatment or illegal hospitalization.

The law bans mental health examinations on a citizen against his or her own will. However, if a person suffering suspected mental illness poses a danger to himself or herself, or to others, close relatives, an employer or local police authorities may send him or her to a hospital at once for a diagnosis, it says.

Under the law, every mental illness diagnosis should be made by a qualified psychiatrist.

Mentally ill people shall receive inpatient treatment on a voluntary basis, except those who are diagnosed with a severe mental illness and have the potential to harm themselves or others.

Patients and their relatives can request a second diagnosis on their condition and, if they still disagree with the diagnosis, they can turn to any qualified medical institution for verification, according to the law.

The law clarifies several rules regarding who is able to send potentially mentally ill people for diagnosis and how to settle a dispute over their condition. As such, it will no doubt help prevent abuse, Wang Shaoli said.

"However, it is impossible for the law alone to eliminate malpractice regarding hospitalization," he said. "Besides the law, we need well-designed medical protocols and strict implementation of laws and protocols."

Improving medical treatment

China only has about 20,000 registered psychiatrists, or 15 psychiatrists for every one million sufferers. The number of mental health institutions and doctors lags far behind need.

Also, most general hospitals do not have clinics specializing in mental illnesses and many medical workers, other than psychiatrists and psychologists, lack awareness and fail to effectively identify symptoms of mental disorders.

To cope with such a situation, the new law requires general hospitals to set up mental illness clinics under the guidance of government health departments and medical workers to be trained.

"Patients who go to general hospitals may have both physical and mental illness. If hospitals provide a better psychiatric service, they will be treated properly and promptly and valuable medical resources will not be wasted with inaccurate therapies," Wang said.

The law includes a provision asking the government to provide a special allowance for medical workers at mental health institutions, as their work is of high risk and their income is relatively low. This has been widely welcomed by psychiatrists. They have also called for more investment in education.


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