Mental illness: Do you really know what it means?

Mental illness: Do you really know what it means?

The term “mental illness” is often wrongly associated with dementia, sorcery or witchcraft. This common misunderstanding reflects the public’s lack of awareness about mental illnesses, and their effects from the early stages of a patient’s life. They can cause direct psychological or physical harm, and sometimes lead to sexual exploitation.

The Saudi mental health care regulations, issued in 2014, are among the most comprehensive in the Kingdom. They deal with important aspects of a psychiatric patient’s life, and identify the care and control mechanisms provided by the General Council for the Supervision of Mental Health, which supervises the work of local councils in each region.

The council was established mainly to organize and promote mental health care for psychiatric patients, to protect their rights and their dignity, and to establish the proper mechanisms for treatment in psychiatric facilities. Its job is to ensure that all such facilities operate to the highest standards and systems, and to deal correctly with complaints from patients or their representatives. However, despite a huge number of complaints, and reports of the deterioration of some mental health facilities, one rarely hears of the work of the General Council. 

I would like to shed more light on the rights of psychiatric patients, because they have a direct impact on the patient, their dignity and their protection. The mental health care regulations clearly stress the importance of observing the highest medical standards in a safe and healthy environment, informing the patient or their representative about their condition, proposing the proper treatment, and enabling the patient to participate in this plan.

The system requires respect for a psychiatric patient’s rights, one of the most important of which is the right to know why they are being admitted to a psychiatric treatment facility. The only exceptions are when there are clear signs of severe mental disorder that can lead to the patient harming themselves or others, or when admission is required to prevent any further deterioration in the patient’s psychological condition. In each case, documentation is required from two accredited psychiatrists. Restricting a patient’s psychological freedom through isolation is legally permissible only in the case of need, and must be medically approved for a specified period and through the least restrictive means.

One of the most important aspects of treatment is the method used. Unfortunately, many psychiatrists prescribe drugs without educating the patient about possible side effects, which can lead to deterioration in health, and sometimes even addiction. Drugs companies also have a role to play, and should be encouraged not to put profit before patient health. In practice, any patient in a psychiatric facility, or their representative, may report to the Committee for the Care of the Rights of Psychiatric Patients in Psychiatric Facilities any exploitation or abuse, actual or threatened, whether physical, moral or sexual.

Mental health is one of the main pillars of a healthy society and a safe environment that contributes to the protection and appreciation of every individual. Before legal education on the rights of psychiatric patients, we need a proper understanding of what mental illness is, and we must work to raise awareness about it. After all, that psychiatric patient could be us or any of our loved ones.

• Dimah Talal Alsharif is a Saudi legal consultant, head of the health law department at the law firm of Majed Garoub and a member of the International Association of Lawyers. Twitter: @dimah_alsharif

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