Mental health is a universal human right

When we say “mental health is a universal human right,” what do we mean? After all, we all “have” mental health, just like we have physical health, but we aren’t always physically or mentally healthy.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease. This means that being mentally healthy doesn’t just mean that you don’t have a disorder or illness; it means you are able to cope with the everyday stresses of life, contribute to society, can work productively, and that you have a general sense of wellbeing.

"Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. It is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in. Mental health is a basic human right. And it is crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development."

– World Health Organization (WHO)

Mental Health and Human Rights

The Human Rights Act 1998 offers us certain protections, such as the right to life, but it does not guarantee access to health care or protect us from some of the ways our mental health might be negatively affected, such as poverty and the cost-of-living crisis. Reporting shows that NHS waiting lists have continued to grow, with patients’ mental health deteriorating while often waiting more than 12 weeks to begin treatment.

Meanwhile, though Article 14 of the Human Rights Act 1998 offers the right to protection from discrimination, there are disparities in how people in the UK access mental health care:

  • Ethnic minorities have worse access to voluntary mental health care, meaning they’re more likely to have undiagnosed mental health conditions, and are more likely to follow involuntary paths into mental health care such as crisis care.
  • Poorer people have worse access to mental health care. This is especially true during the cost-of-living crisis, and when one of the only options to mental health care outside of the NHS is through accessing private therapy or counselling.
  • Recent reports show that hygiene poverty is rising since the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, with more children arriving at school with unwashed uniforms and poor personal hygiene. This influences their self-esteem and mental health, meaning poorer mental health outcomes for children during an important time in their development.
  • Cultural stigma in Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities around mental illness and mental health care leads to poorer mental health outcomes. People may be less likely to speak about their mental health concerns, may be less likely to seek help, and find it difficult to access adequate help due to systemic racism and sometimes language barriers.
  • There is a lack of culturally sensitive mental health treatment in the UK, meaning BAME communities may have greater difficulty accessing care.
  • Other marginalised communities face similar challenges when accessing mental health care and similarly face different mental health challenges. They are also vulnerable to discrimination and a lack of treatment options that are sensitive to their identities, such as LGBTQIA+ affirming care and sensitive mental health treatment for queer people. With suicide rates higher among the LGBTQIA+ community, their human rights to good mental health can’t be overlooked.

The Mental Health Act

While people living with mental illness are protected by the Human Rights Act, the Mental Health Act allows people living with severe mental illness to be detained and treated without their consent if they may pose a risk to themselves and others.

A 2017-2018 review of the Mental Health Act in England and Wales found human rights concerns for people detained under the Act. These include people and their loved ones having limited say in their treatment and recovery, long periods of detention without therapeutic benefit, and the use of restraint, especially with a higher prevalence against women and people from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Our founding charity, Rethink Mental Illness, has been campaigning to improve the Mental Health Act since the 1980s, but more must be done before good mental health is treated as a human right, and this includes reforming the Mental Health Act to ensure that everybody is protected and treated with dignity while receiving care. A January 2021 UK Government White Paper sets out proposed changes to the Act, but these changes have yet to be implemented.

So, while mental health care is a universal human right, we aren’t quite there yet as a society. That’s why we want to work to better highlight and address these disparities in our schools, our workplaces, and our homes.

  • Under Protocol 1, Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, everybody has a right to education. We believe that mental health education should be included in school curriculums, while schools should also provide counselling for students.
  • Under Article 14 of the Human Rights Act, we deserve protection of discrimination based on mental illness. We also have a right to work without burnout and without being overworked, thus having our mental health protected.
  • At home, the Human Rights Act is important in its entirety. We believe everybody should have the tools to manage their mental health and have open, honest discussions with their friends and loved ones about the realities of living with mental illness.

This World Mental Health Day, we want to encourage everybody to pledge to make good mental health a human right, and to pledge to protect, promote, and respect our own mental health and the mental health of others.

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