New Mental Health Law Comes Into Effect

China’s first law, passed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee last October after attempts spanning almost 30 years, came into effect on May 1st. Besides protecting patient privacy and at least acknowledging the need for more resources, the law has been hailed for addressing the problem of wrongful institutionalization, increasingly used as a weapon by local authorities against and protesters. From Bai Tiantian at Global Times:

“The law is the first in China that defines the concept, the standard and the procedure of ‘involuntary medical treatment’ in an effort to prevent healthy and innocent people from being wrongly diagnosed as ‘insane’ and placed against their will in a mental hospital,” Zhou Zijun, a professor with Peking University’s School of , told the Global Times.

The law has attracted a lot of attention since its draft was submitted for discussion last year. Although there are no official records on the number of people wrongly institutionalized, Xinhua has reported that such cases have increased over the past few years.

[…] According to the law, the decision whether to admit a patient in a mental hospital should be based on a diagnosis made by licensed psychiatrists rather than law enforcement departments. The diagnosis must be verified by two independent professionals should the family of the patient demand a re-evaluation.

[…] But some feel it does not go far enough. “This newly released law is only a general guideline and does not answer detailed questions such as how to determine the consent of a potentially mentally ill person,” said Zhang Xinkai, a senior psychiatrist from the Shanghai Mental Health Center.

BBC Monitoring rounded up more Chinese media commentary on the new law:

Southern Metropolis Daily questions the impact of the law, saying it gives the guardian too much power. As a result, it will not protect people from being sent for treatment forcibly.

It is yet to be seen whether the law will terminate the practice of “being mentally ill-ed”, the paper says.

“Being mentally ill-ed”, a buzzword in today’s papers, is a situation where a mentally sound person is pronounced ill by others, quite often by family members over personal grudges, and forced to stay in hospital.

[…] The website of China National Radio carries an article titled “Expert elaborates on how to avoid being mentally ill-ed”.

(Perry Link and CDT founder Xiao Qiang explained this “involuntary passive” idiom in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in January.)

At China Law & Policy in December (via CDT), Elizabeth M. Lynch pointed out other shortcomings in the new law besides the remaining potential for abuse:

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.

Estimates of the rate of genuine mental illness in China range from 8% to 17.5% of the population.