China / Government

New law on mental health lauded

By Shan Juan (China Daily) Updated: 2012-10-27 01:21

Legislation to protect the rights of both patients and doctors

China's long-awaited national legislation on mental health will help improve patients' access to timely and appropriate treatment, a field in which the nation still lags behind most developed countries, said a senior health official.

Currently, China can only provide around 1.6 hospital beds to every 10,000 people, compared to the global average of 4.4, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health.

The Standing Committee of the 11th National People's Congress adopted the Mental Health Law on Friday.

"The law would ensure increased and sustainable government support to strengthen the mental health service system and its overall capacity," said Kong Lingzhi, deputy director of the ministry's bureau of disease control and prevention.

Under the law, general hospitals are required to set up mental health departments and to help train medical workers in this field.

The law serves as the legal basis for the authorities and care providers to fulfill their duties appropriately, she added.

Wang Shaoli, deputy director of Beijing's Huilongguan Hospital, who also took part in the drafting of the Mental Health Law, said it would better regulate medics' practices, and protect patients' rights.

Wang said that globally around 70 percent of nations now have nationwide legislations on mental health, and many provide free treatment to patients with serious mental health illness.

In China, a few cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, provide free treatment to local residents with severe mental health problems, he noted.

"But China still lags far behind in mental health care, although some cities such as Beijing have local regulations," said Wang.

China has around 16 million people with serious mental health issues but less than half have received treatment, according to official figures.

"The new law lays a landmark legal foundation to gradually ensure treatment regardless of location, social status and wealth," he said.

"Everyone has the right to health, both physical and mental," he added, pointing out that the national legislation would provide improved government support both in funding and capacity building.

"But this process will take some time, even with the law in place," he said.

Wang suggested more specific targets and requirements in areas such as government spending on mental health to facilitate the law's enforcement.

Given the huge differences in levels of development across China, clearly defined and uniform requirements would not be feasible, he added.

Besides, that issues primarily surrounding the compulsory treatment could hardly reach consensus among legislators of the fields of law, medicine, and sociology is another major reason for that, he said.

Efforts to introduce the legislation started in 1985.

In recent years, reports that some people had been forcibly admitted to mental health institutions by their relatives have attracted public attention, and led to calls for legislation to prevent such abuses.

However, Wang said: "The law can never end crimes and the Mental Health Law, similarly, should focus more on strictly regulating the mental health care procedures by practitioners."

Shang Lan, a veteran doctor at Huilongguan Hospital, said she welcomed the legislation as it would also help safeguard doctors' rights.

She said that doctors faced a dilemma when apparently healthy people were admitted to mental hospitals by their relatives.

"Now the law gives us a legal footing and guidance on how to act accordingly in such cases," she noted.

In addition, the law will help to raise government spending on mental health and improve the standing of medical staff in this field, Wang added.

The law will benefit patients in terms of access of treatment, their quality of life, and improve their chances of recovery, he said.

But he said current mental health care capacity, particularly at general and grassroots hospitals, remained poor in terms of the timely referral and appropriate treatment of patients.

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