Human Rights Day, celebrated every year on December 10, is being observed this year under the theme “Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All”. This theme aims to promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ahead of its 75th anniversary in 2023 and acknowledges the need for action to promote dignity and equality.
This theme is particularly relevant in mental health and suicide prevention because accessible and equitable mental health services, humane treatment, and respect for dignity are essential to ensure health as a fundamental human right. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 in every 8 people worldwide has a mental health disorder and around 703,000 individuals lose their lives to suicide every year. Despite this high prevalence, the majority of those who suffer from mental illnesses do not have access to quality care, and they often face discrimination, stigma, and human rights violations. According to WHO estimates, between 76% and 85% of people with severe mental disorders do not receive treatment in low-income and middle-income countries compared to 35% and 50% in high-income countries. As much as 77% of global suicides occur in lower and middle-income countries. To address this, countries around the world must increase investment to guarantee that everyone has access to mental health services and to combat stigma and discrimination related to mental health.
It is also important that people living with mental illnesses are treated with dignity and equality, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights suggests that every person around the world is entitled to basic human rights and freedom despite their health status. As people living with mental disorders are still facing human rights violations and discrimination around many parts of the world, the WHO Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013–2030 acknowledges the need to integrate human rights perspectives while responding to the global burden of mental disorders. Further, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) highlights the rights of persons with disabilities, including psychosocial disabilities, to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination.
In addition, decriminalisation of suicide is a crucial step towards ensuring dignity, freedom, and justice for everyone. Suicide is still criminalised in around 20 countries around the world where individuals and families can face legal repercussions such as arrest, prosecution, harsh fines, and even imprisonment. This hinders help-seeking, promotes stigma surrounding suicide, and most importantly, disregards the human rights of people living with mental health conditions and people in distress. Punishing people during moments of crisis is counterproductive and a violation of human rights. Therefore, the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) recommends the decriminalisation of attempted suicide and urges nations where suicidal behaviour remains a criminal offence to change their laws. Decriminalisation acknowledges the autonomy, agency, and dignity of individuals experiencing mental health distress and is in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As we celebrate Human Rights Day this year, it is important that we address human rights violations, discrimination against those with mental disorders, and the inaccessibility of mental health services. It is impossible to achieve health for all as a fundamental human right without taking action to address these issues.