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Mental Health as a Human Right: breaking the stigma

Updated: Apr 15

It is true that mental health is recognized as a human right, however, the extent of this recognition remains quite fragile. The said recognition of mental health as a human right is attributable to the various international instruments that acknowledge the inherent dignity and worth of every person, including their right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Some examples of the international instruments that recognize mental health as a human right are the following: In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 25 which recognizes the right of every person to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, including medical care and necessary social services. Similarly, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Article 12.1 states that everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, which recognizes mental health as a human right. In addition, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which is an inter-governmental body within the UN, is committed to promoting and protecting human rights around the world, including physical and mental health. The Council has made recommendations on the issue, acknowledging that mental health is crucial to overall well-being and urging member states to prioritize it in their policies and programs.

However, despite being recognized as a human right in various international treaties, mental health continues to be undervalued. It has long been a neglected aspect of public health, with many societies prioritizing physical health over mental well-being. The question is why is mental health a difficult topic to raise? Why do people fear opening up? The simple answer is the stigmatization and discrimination that it carries. The stigmatization of mental health often arises from inadequate comprehension and limited education on the subject matter. Misunderstandings often lead to prejudice against people with mental health issues. For people with mental health conditions, the discrimination they experience can make their problems worse and make it harder to recover and overcome them. Carrying the title of mental illness does not only affect the person with the illness, but it can also affect family members and close friends. A lot of times the prejudice of mental health issues and seeking psychological therapy comes from our own homes. Younger generations are more accepting and open to mental health. They are more vocal about seeing a specialist and taking medications to improve their health. However, among the older generations, mental health is a taboo topic, attaching it with a lot of misconceptions. Thus, perhaps unintentionally, they are being the obstacle to young people accessing mental health care.

It is important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the importance of mental health on the global agenda. Sadly, the pandemic has resulted in increased mental health challenges for many people, including those who have lost loved ones, faced economic hardship, or suffered from social isolation. Unfortunately, there have been concerning indications of an increase in suicidal thoughts and behaviors, including among healthcare workers. Different groups of people have been affected in various ways. Young people have been particularly vulnerable to social isolation and disconnection due to extended school and university closures, making them feel uncertain and lonely. Being forced to stay at home has also increased the risk in some family environments of abuse and violence which are major factors for mental health problems. During the first year of the pandemic, a rapid assessment reported that 45% of women had experienced some form of violence, either directly or indirectly, resulting in greater stress at home for women. The bigger issue is that while mental health needs have increased, mental health services have been severely disrupted. For example, social measures prevented people from accessing care at that time. In numerous cases, the lack of knowledge and incorrect information about the virus left people fearing and hesitant to seek help.

Policies and budgets allocated to mental health services remain woefully inadequate, even after recognizing the fact that mental health has a significant impact on overall well-being. According to the 2014 report published by WHO, mental health accounts for less than 5% of general government health expenditures worldwide, with the figure being significantly lower in low-income countries. The unintended consequence is that mental health is ranked lower than physical health in terms of budgeting and attention. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reports that in some countries, the only care provided for mentally-ill individuals is in psychiatric institutions, and many of them are associated with significant human rights violations. To give some perspective, according to the OHCHR, mental health conditions affect one in four people throughout their lifetime. However, almost two thirds of persons with mental health conditions will not seek treatments for their condition. Additionally, persons with mental health conditions have a much-reduced life expectancy compared with the general population, with an estimated drop in life expectancy of 20 years for men and 15 years for women.

The lack of financial resources has led to an insufficiency of mental health services, leaving many people without access to the necessary treatment and support needed to address their mental health needs. Adding to this problem is the high cost of mental health care, which is not covered by health insurance in many countries, making it a luxury that only those who can afford to pay out-of-pocket can access. This situation should not be tolerable or permissible. Everyone deserves access to adequate mental health care, regardless of what their financial situation is. To address these challenges, there is an urgent need for increased investment in mental health services and the development of community-based programs that can offer the necessary support and care for individuals with mental health conditions. By prioritizing mental health as a basic human right, we can work towards a world where everyone has access to the care they need to achieve their full potential.

Thankfully, in recent years, some steps have been taken that have increased the focus on mental health. One of them has been the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Particularly Goal 3 of the SDGs, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, includes a specific target to promote mental health. This has helped to raise awareness of the importance of mental health as a global public health issue, and has encouraged countries to prioritize mental health in their health policies and programs. Another pillar that has helped to raise awareness of mental health has been the media, especially social media. A variety of resources, personal stories and motivational messages have been shared through social media. As a result of the content that has been shared, mental health is becoming more normalized and the stigma that is associated with it is being broken down.

However, people are still in pain. Mental illness is like a virus that slowly consumes them, causing them to think ominous ideas and turn to unhealthy means of resolving their issues. All of this is a result of society and governments' refusal to recognize the true nature of the problem. They make fun of them for who they are and what they think rather than offering them support. They are making them feel foolish and making their issues seem insignificant and minor. Providing advice along the lines of "you should go for a walk" or "stop thinking about it." Ensuring that mental health is recognized and respected as an important human right is vital to creating a healthier and more equitable world. Despite some progress in recognizing the importance of mental health, stigma remains a significant barrier to achieving this goal. Stigma can lead to discrimination, isolation, and a lack of understanding that prevents individuals from seeking the care they need.

We must continue to work towards breaking down these barriers and promoting a more inclusive and supportive society for all. Let us continue the conversation on how we can break the stigma surrounding mental health and promote a world where everyone can access the care and support they need to thrive.


World Health Organization: WHO. (2022). The impact of COVID-19 on mental health cannot be made light of.

Written by Ioanna Polydorou

Edited by Benedetta de Rosa


Ioanna Polydorou is a second year Human Rights and Multilevel Governance Masters student at the University of Padova. Obtained an undergraduate degree in LLB Law from the University of Reading, UK. Her goal is to work in the human rights field supporting women’s rights. Follow Ioanna on LinkedIn: Ioanna Polydorou and Instagram @joahnpo


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