• Generation Mental Health Team

Mental Health Law: a rather neglected area...

Our 'Perspectives on Global Mental Health; campaign now hears from one of our Expert Advisory Board members; Dr. Laura Davidson. Dr. Davidson shares with us the diverse ways in which she has engaged with global mental health through her career as a Barrister, and highlights the need for more passionate young people to engage with the growing field.

I went into mental health as a young lawyer, almost by accident. I wanted to do a Ph.D in medical law, but another student was already undertaking doctoral research in the area upon which I’d thought of focusing. At the time, the UK’s Human Rights Act was relatively new, and after a little research I discovered that mental health law was a rather neglected area. So my Ph.D at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, examined the UK’s Mental Health Act 1983 and its compliance (or otherwise) with Articles 3 and 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In practice as a Barrister (Advocate/litigator), I quickly became known for my expertise in mental health law. With the advent of the UK’s Mental Capacity Act 2005 and the new and wider health and welfare jurisdiction of the Court of Protection, I began undertaking interesting capacity work too. In 2008 I co-founded Mental Health Research UK, which was the UK’s first mental health research charity. I did so because I was appalled that it didn’t already exist, despite large charities concentrating on physical health problems having been in existence for decades (such as the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK).

I’m now also an international development consultant and sometimes undertake empirical research. For example, I’ve drafted mental health legislation for the Rwandan government, conducted qualitative research in northern Uganda, and advised the UN on disability law in Zimbabwe. I’ve recently edited a book on global mental health which is a compilation of chapters from global experts in the field (The Routledge Handbook of International Development, Mental Health and Wellbeing). What is abundantly clear from the book is that global mental health is intersectional, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. Mental health has never had parity with physical health, despite the fact that the two are inextricably linked; poor physical health outcomes adversely affect mental health, and poor mental health can lead to many physical health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and somatic disorders. In low- and middle-income countries, governments and NGOs often focus more on visible physical health issues such as maternal health, HIV/AIDS or infant mortality. Given the inextricability of mental and physical health issues, ignoring mental health is an enormous mistake. We need a holistic, person-centred approach to global mental health – indeed, to global health in general.

The mental health field has always been neglected, for an abundance of reasons. First, those with psychosocial disability often have no voice. They are under-valued as human beings, locked up in psychiatric hospitals, not welcomed by employers, stigmatised and side-lined. Furthermore, mental health issues are not visible in the way that physical health problems are, and this often prevents empathy-generation. The failure to acknowledge the inter-linking of mental and physical health is a huge mistake. A tendency to focus on imperfect ‘cure’, rather than prevention, has compounded this error. The global mental health field desperately needs young, passionate, innovative individuals to change this sorry state of affairs! Strong advocates are essential for the development of better treatments (not necessarily pharmacological, although these desperately need to be improved), and to lobby governments to fund mental health properly and pay proper heed to the wellbeing of their populations. We also need mental health professionals to be better rewarded financially, and more young people going into research to improve current treatments.

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