The new law emphasizes privacy, requiring that institutions and individuals protect the personal information of mentally ill patients, such as names, addresses and employment data, according to a report from the state-owned Xinhua News Agency. It also bans involuntary mental health examinations and inpatient treatment except in cases in which patients express an intent to harm themselves or others, Xinhua said.
Hospitals will be required to provide counseling services or set up outpatient clinics to assist the mentally ill under the new law, which also calls for more doctor training.
An estimated 100 million Chinese people suffer from mentally illness, according to a 2007 survey by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey notes that 16 million have severe conditions.
Activists say the law is a step in the right direction that addresses a number of long-standing deficiencies in China’s health-care system, including a lack of medical facilities, inadequate insurance coverage and insufficient doctors.
The creation of a law also aims to end a practice that has for decades enabled China’s government to silence dissidents and persons perceived as problematic by deeming them mentally ill, said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher at advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
One of the more well-known cases involved Wang Wanxing, a pro-democracy demonstrator who was held for 13 years in a Chinese police-run mental asylum after holding in 1992 a demonstration on Tiananmen Square to commemorate the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on political activists.
As recent as 2011, the practice was used to force into asylum a local entrepreneur, Chen Guoming, who refused to lend money to his wife’s family, according to Xinhua.
The law will now require patients be given the right to an independent review of their own cases, Mr. Bequelin said, adding that now there will be clear nationwide procedures to appeal involuntary commitment.
While the law is a major move forward for China, it fails to address the power of the police in China’s mental health industry, Mr. Bequelin said, noting that China’s Ministry of Public Security will maintain the authority to run its own psychiatric institutions beyond those already maintained by the Ministry of Health and private institutions.
“Allowing public security officials to hold control will do little to change the problem if there is no added system of checks and balances,” he said.
In 2010, the Ministry of Public Security lobbied to expand its network of 22 treatment centers across all provinces of China, according to the state-run China Daily.
Questions remain on how China’s new mental health law will be enforced, as legal enforcements have traditionally been ad hoc in China.
The government has not yet outlined the funding that it will provide for the expansion of medical services.
– Laurie Burkitt. Follow her on Twitter @lburkitt