Dainius Pūras on addressing two global crises: the pandemic and global mental health crisis

September 21, 2020
Today international conference Mind the Gap: Emotional Wellbeing and Social Solidarity during Covid-19″ was taking place in Kaunas on COVID-19 and mental health. Dainius Pūras, Director of the HRMI was among keynote presenters and delivered a speech about “Covid-19 and the right to health”.

All human rights are indivisible and interconnected. The right to physical and mental health cannot be effectively realized if other human rights are neglected or undermined.

History of mental health care and psychiatry warns us that selective efforts to address mental health conditions by “fixing disorders”, especially if this is done at the expense of undermining human rights and freedoms, can have detrimental consequences to well-being of individuals and societies. In this context, it is important to critically assess current global mental health situation and to acknowledge important elements of the systemic failure of the status quo within mental health care systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to re-think the direction of mental health policies and practices and to question the effectiveness of investing in the status quo. Firstly, it would be not wise to medicalize large number of cases of mental health conditions triggered by fear of being infected or subjected to effects of lockdowns, and to qualify such cases as a proof of increased number of mental illnesses. Secondly, it is obvious now more than ever before that the legacy of segregated psychiatric institutions should be abandoned.

Systemic obstacles for realization of the right to mental health have been identified. Among other social determinants (poverty, discrimination, violence in different settings), these are widely spread use of coercion and institutionalization, excessive use of biomedical interventions, power asymmetries between providers and users of services and biased use of knowledge and evidence in mental health care.  These obstacles are even more evident and threatening nowadays, when the global community is facing a COVID-19 pandemic. This public health crisis is a good opportunity for essential change in mental health policies and practices globally. In order to achieve it, concerted efforts should be undertaken by all stakeholders to fully embrace human rights-based approach in mental healthcare and to abandon the legacy of reliance on institutional care, as well as on the excessive medicalization of human feelings and diversity.