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World Mental Health Day: Commonwealth Secretary-General urges countries to modernise mental health legislation

9 October 2020

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland has impressed upon member countries the importance of examining mental health legislation to see whether it is in line with the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Speaking on World Mental Health Day, she said we must empower and protect people and urgently take steps to reform mental health legislation where this is necessary.

A Commonwealth Foundation report* has revealed that laws in many member countries do not yet comply with the 2008 UN Convention, with legislation based on outdated understanding of the mental health conditions.

Measures which remain on the statute book in many jurisdictions are based on approaches which have been superseded by modern advances in care and treatment of disorders. Legislation in some cases results in people with mental health conditions being denied their fundamental human rights and their ability to lead fulfilling lives.

Mental health conditions affect one in four people worldwide at some point in their lives and are the third leading cause of disease burden, costing the global economy about $2.5 trillion annually in social services and lost productivity.

These pre-COVID estimates are likely to worsen as the economic fallout, financial insecurity, social isolation and bereavement which accompany the pandemic are pushing more people into mental health crises.

Distress calls to mental health helplines have risen by as much as 200 per cent in some countries, while the suicide rate is higher compared with a year before.

Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said: “Historically, experience teaches us that the impact of economic hardship and social insecurity are likely to lead to increases in the numbers of people with mental health conditions.

“As well as being detrimental to the wellbeing of those with existing mental health diagnoses, the global lockdown is causing many others with no history of psychological disorders – particularly health workers, young people and women – to develop conditions such as depression and anxiety.

“The pandemic has disrupted treatment, support services and coping mechanisms in communities, forcing many to conceal their struggle and to feel abandoned without help. This is likely to result in a sharp increase in the numbers of people needing urgent care and treatment once the pandemic is overcome and restrictions are lifted.

“It is vital that our member countries should be ready to provide essential health services to treat and support people with mental health conditions and prepare their healthcare systems to handle the coming surge even while they are responding to the pandemic.”

Recalling the commitment to mental wellbeing made by the Heads of Government of Commonwealth countries at their last biennial summit, the Secretary-General urged countries to take action in accordance with that commitment and to implement reforms which will lead to compliance with the UN Convention.

She also referred to the need for measures to address the social stigma associated with mental health conditions which prevails in so many cultures and communities within the Commonwealth.

Secretary-General Scotland added: “The first and perhaps most important step towards delivering on this commitment requires modernising mental health legislation in line with the UN Convention and in consultation with those affected by mental health conditions and the representative organisations.

“Pragmatic legislation provides a legal framework to address critical issues such as giving everyone access to health services, rehabilitating and integrating those affected, ending stigma, promoting mental wellbeing and protecting their human rights.”

The Secretariat together with the Commonwealth Nurses and Midwives Federation is currently helping The Bahamas review its existing mental health legislation and to draft new statutes which accord with the UN Convention.

If enacted, the updated legislation will come into effect at a time when Bahamians deal with the dual impact of Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Federation has previously supported Seychelles with writing and enacting new mental health legislation while a similar process is currently underway in Botswana.

The Federation’s Executive Secretary, Jill Iliffe, said: “Mental health policy and practice should be based on a sound legal framework which is compliant with the UN Convention, to protect people in need of mental health care as well as the practitioners who provide that care.”

Nigerian singer and mental health advocate, Korede Bello, said: “As an advocate for mental health, I believe for a nation to truly develop, the mind of her people needs to be healthy. If we don't see physical health as a taboo, then why can't we address mental health?

“There is no health without mental health so I implore our leaders in all African nations and Commonwealth countries to invest more in mental health.

“We cannot achieve global peace if we cannot find inner peace. It starts from the mind. And making mental wellness a matter of priority starts with you and me. It is a collective effort and all hands must be on deck to secure the future of the continent.”

The Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Disabled People’s Forum welcomed the Secretary-General’s statement.

The Forum’s General Secretary, Richard Rieser, said: “Representing more than 450 million disabled people in the Commonwealth, we are keen to collaborate with the Commonwealth and member governments to help implement the UN Convention and challenge barriers and stigma, especially on this day to all those with largely invisible mental health conditions.”

The UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities serves as a universal standard and legally binding framework for promoting and protecting those suffering from mental disorders. As of 2020, 53 out of the Commonwealth 54 member countries have ratified this treaty.

*Note: Data is missing in some Commonwealth countries.

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