New Mental Health Law: More Problems than Solutions?

China passed its first mental health law in October, after almost thirty years of efforts. The new law is intended to address issues such as patent privacy and wrongful institutionalisation but, according to Elizabeth M. Lynch at China Law & Policy, has a number of loopholes and other flaws which threaten to undermine its effectiveness.

One of the major improvements to the law since earlier drafts is the removal of the provision that specifically permitted involuntary commitment if the individual’s behavior was deemed to be “disturbing public order” or “endangering public safety” (see interview with Prof. Michael Perlin about this issue here). Earlier drafts which included that clause were vigorously attacked by both Chinese and foreign experts noting that such a provision would give carte blanche to the police to involuntarily commit anyone who expressed a dissenting view. As Chinese Human Rights Defenders (“CHRD”) highlighted in its seminal report on China’s mental hospitals, The Darkest Corners: Abuses of Involuntary Psychiatric Commitment in China, some of China’s many mental hospital “patients” are in fact dissidents who were involuntarily committed outside of any court process for expressing their dissenting views.

Deletion of this provision is certainly a step forward there are still aspects of the adopted law that make it far less than ideal and demonstrates the continued need for better protections for the mentally ill in China.

Among these is the continued and easily abused provision for involuntary commitment by a family member. Xinhua’s coverage of the new law noted the case of Chen Guoming, whose wife had him committed for 56 days after he refused to lend money to her family. This week, Radio Free Asia reported that the same provision was used to hospitalise a politically outspoken Hangzhou professor, after his school reportedly read his comments to students as a sign of mental breakdown.

Professor Wang Peijian, who teaches at China Jiliang University in Hangzhou, initially resisted being forced into a psychiatric hospital by authorities for expressing “politically sensitive” opinions in class over the past few weeks, the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in an e-mailed statement.

[…] “Wang believed that this was because he had spoken to students about his views on, among other topics, the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power, the 1989 massacre around Tiananmen Square, and suppression of human rights lawyers,” CHRD said.

[…] Wang’s brother, Wang Zhuangjian, said he was unable to manage the situation without help, and confirmed that he had collaborated with school security officials.

“Everything went pretty smoothly, with a minimum of physical resistance,” he said. “We have already taken the measures most likely to protect my brother.”

Lynch goes on to discuss other issues with the new law, including vagueness on several key points and a lack of any court oversight or guaranteed and reliable medical appeal. She concludes:

In reality, the Mental Health Law does little to foster an environment where those with mental illness can lead an independent life and be accepted by society. Furthermore, although the law discusses the very real (and dire) need to increase the number of mental health professionals in China, that has remained aspirational. As of yet, the Chinese government has remained silent on how much money and what incentives it will provide to achieve that goal. Providing adequate and sufficient medical assistance for those suffering from mental illness is just as important to making sure that those individuals will be able to lead a full life.