New York City Erodes Fragile Human Rights Protection For Mental Health Sufferers

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The following Guardian article — a personal diary of one American with mental illness who was incarcerated against her will — is a vision of horror. . .  for those who are lucky. For the unlucky, the consequences can apparently be much worse.

The article has been written to shine a personal light on a recent decision by New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams, to allow chronically homeless people to be placed in mental institutions if, in the sole judgement of a police officer, a person ‘appears to be mentally ill and displays an inability to meet basic living needs.’

In 1955, the heyday of institutionalization for those with mental health issues, roughly half a million Americans were effectively jailed against their will in mental health institutions.

Awkward, upsetting, difficult, quarrelsome, self-harming and occasionally dangerous behaviour could be removed from a family and the general community. But they were not without some human rights. They were (supposedly) safeguarded by the recommendation of one or more mental health experts who were qualified to evaluate the risk of self-harm to a disturbed individual, as well as the threat to other individuals — family or community.

These kinds of evaluations and committals continue today, even after a backlash against institutionalization has dramatically reduced the numbers incarcerated over the last three quarters of a century. But Mayor Adams’ decision amounts to a shredding of those existing, fragile human rights for those with mental health issues.

The underlying principle of involuntary committal is that the suffering individual will receive appropriate care to deal with their health issues. But are these involuntary visits to a mental health facility helpful, or harmful? Ruth Sangree was committed to an institution based on expert evaluation. Now, returned to society and studying to be a lawyer, she found the experience not in the least curative, more endlessly terrifying.

Read considerably more in The Guardian: I was hospitalized against my will. I know firsthand the harm it can cause

Human Rights Perspectives

In the United Nations’ guidance, rights to adequate housing and health are closely linked. In the Right To Adequate Housing, health is mentioned more than 20 times.

The UN’s High Commissioner on Human Rights has also issued Mental health and human rights. It makes specific recommendations about forced treatment and the deprivation of liberty on the basis of impairments, which are directly applicable to the policies planned for New York City.