The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Dainius Pūras, has produced a report
which focuses on the right of everyone to mental health (see press release
). It is the result of extensive consultations among a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives of the disability community and users and former users of mental health services.
It essentially argues for a rights-based mental health service, as has been recognised by the World Health Organisation, to promote and protect the mental health of entire populations. The Special Rapporteur believes that the crisis in mental health should not be managed as a crisis of individual conditions but as a crisis of social obstacles which hinders individual rights. He calls for mental health leadership to confront the global burden of obstacles and embed right-based mental health innovation in public policy.
I have been merrily tweeting quotes or mostly amended quotes from the report, as it very much comes from a critical psychiatry perspective. For example:-
|Mental health services governed by reductionist biomedical paradigm that has contributed to exclusion, neglect, coercion and abuse of people|
10 Jun 2017, 10:59
|Preoccupation with biomedical interventions, including psychotropic medications and non-consensual measures, is no longer defensible|
10 Jun 2017, 11:06
|Reductive biomedical approaches that do not adequately address context and relationships cannot be considered compliant with right to health|
11 Jun 2017, 18:10
|While biomedical component important, its dominance has become counter-productive, disempowering rights and reinforcing stigma and exclusion|
11 Jun 2017, 18:11
|Medicine, in particular mental health, is to a large extent a social science and this understanding should be used to guide its practice|
11 Jun 2017, 18:03
|Mental health policies should address the “power imbalance” rather than “chemical imbalance”|
11 Jun 2017, 22:43
The Special Rapporteur proposes, as would critical psychiatry, that there are three major obstacles to a rights-based mental health for all: (1) dominance of the biomedical model (2) power asymmetries and (3) the biased use of evidence.
As far as the dominance of the biomedical model is concerned, he concludes that:-
|We have been sold a myth that the best solutions for addressing mental health challenges are medications and other biomedical interventions|
10 Jun 2017, 11:40
|The balance between the psychosocial model and interventions and the biomedical model and interventions should be more appropriate|
12 Jun 2017, 10:54
For the rest of this blog, I'll try and condense what Lucy Johnstone called my twitter-friendly summary of the report.
Thanks to @DBDouble for the Twitter-friendly summary. Special Rapporteur who authored the UN report is also a psychiatrist.
12 Jun 2017, 21:42
Anyone who does want to see the list of tweets, though, see my responses to:-
UN Report on right of everyone to enjoyment of highest attainable standard of physical and mental health documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/…
10 Jun 2017, 10:44
As far as power asymmetries are concerned, the report goes on to note that biomedical gatekeepers, in particular biological psychiatry backed by the pharmaceutical industry, are the dominant influence. National mental health strategies tend to reflect biomedical agendas and obscure the views and meaningful participation of civil society. Such biomedical bias leads to the mistrust of many users and threatens and undermines the reputation of the psychiatric profession. It dominates services, even when not supported by the evidence. In summary, biomedical power undermines the principles of holistic care, governance for mental health, innovative and independent interdisciplinary research and the formulation of rights-based priorities in mental health policy.
The individual relationship between psychiatric professional and user can also be exploited. Power imbalance reinforces paternalism and even patriarchal approaches. The asymmetry between professionals and users disempowers users and undermines their right to make decisions about their health and creates an environment where human rights violations can and do occur. This misuse of power asymmetries thrives, in part, because legal statutes often compel the profession and obligates the State to take coercive action.
As far as biased use of evidence is concerned, the report notes that the evidence base for the efficacy of certain psychotropic medications is increasingly challenged from both a scientific and experiential perspective. Similarly, research is accumulating in support of psychosocial, recovery-oriented services and non-coercive alternatives. There are increasing concerns about overprescription and overuse of psychotropic medications in cases where they are not needed. Because of the biomedical bias in mental health, there exists a worrying lag between emerging evidence and how it is used to inform practice.
There are various reasons for this research bias, some of which are mentioned in the report. There is a long history of pharmaceutical companies not disclosing negative results of drug trials, which has obscured the evidence base. Scientific research in mental health continues to suffer from lack of diversified funding and remains focused on the neurobiological model. Academic psychiatry has outsize influence, informing policymakers on resource allocation and guiding principles for mental health services. It has mostly confined its research agenda to the biological determinants of mental health.
There are also implications for teaching in that the biomedical bias in mental health dominates teaching in medical schools, restricting knowledge transfer to the next generation of professionals.
How can all this be changed? There needs to be a strong ethical focus. Mental health services must respect ethics and rights (including “first, do no harm”), choice, control, autonomy, will, preference and dignity. The overreliance on pharmacology, coercive approaches and in-patient treatment is inconsistent with doing no harm, as well as human rights. Abuse of biomedical interventions compromises the right to quality care in mental health services.
The report does make some specific comments about treatment. Psychosocial interventions and support, not medications, should be the first-line treatment option for the majority of people who experience mental health issues. Sadly, such interventions tend to be viewed as luxuries, rather than essential, and therefore lack sustainable investment. In most cases of mild and moderate depression “watchful waiting”, psychosocial support and psychotherapy should be the frontline treatments. It is not a right to health to prescribe psychotropic medication merely because effective psychosocial and public health interventions are unavailable. There are compelling arguments that forced treatment, including with psychotropic medications, is not effective, despite its widespread use. Peer support, when not compromised, is an integral part of recovery-based services. The right to health requires that mental health care comes closer to primary care and general medicine, integrating mental with physical health.
The report does emphasise that people can and do recover from even the most severe mental health conditions and go on to live full and rich lives. It considers that whether the global community has actually learned from the painful past of rights violations in mental health remains an open question.
I worry that this report will just "collect dust". As the Special Rapporteur himself says there is now unequivocal evidence of failures of a system that relies too heavily on the biomedical model of mental health, and yet this model persists despite the critique. I do think critical psychiatry does need to do more to expose the self-interest of modern psychiatry (see previous post). Still, it's very welcome to have United Nations support in this aim.