China Passes First Mental Health Law

China adopted the nation’s first mental health law to protect the rights of the mentally ill on Friday, a move that human rights activists say is a step forward for the country but may fall short of halting its use of psychiatric facilities to silence political and social outliers.

The new law emphasizes privacy, requiring that institutions and individuals protect the personal information of mentally ill patients, such as names, addresses and employment data, according to a report from the state-owned Xinhua News Agency. It also bans involuntary mental health examinations and inpatient treatment except in cases in which patients express an intent to harm themselves or others, Xinhua said.

Hospitals will be required to provide counseling services or set up outpatient clinics to assist the mentally ill under the new law, which also calls for more doctor training.

An estimated 100 million Chinese people suffer from mentally illness, according to a 2007 survey by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey notes that 16 million have severe conditions.

Activists say the law is a step in the right direction that addresses a number of long-standing deficiencies in China’s health-care system, including a lack of medical facilities, inadequate insurance coverage and insufficient doctors.

The creation of a law also aims to end a practice that has for decades enabled China’s government to silence dissidents and persons perceived as problematic by deeming them mentally ill, said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher at advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

By Laurie Burkitt, The Wall Street Journal

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