China is transforming the provision of mental health to its citizens under a new law that takes effect tomorrow. Its first national mental health legislation should have wide-ranging effects on provision of mental health services, but perhaps the most significant and controversial change is one that banishes most forms of involuntary treatment. The law also mandates strict limits on use of seclusion and restraints and ends the use of psychiatric admission as punishment or to enforce treatment of individuals who do not have a mental illness. It also forbids the practice of requiring patients to participate in labor or limiting their right to communicate with the outside world.
An editorial appearing online in AJP in Advance yesterday calls the new law visionary, but emphasizes that it will present China with many challenges—especially the need for more psychiatrists and community-based psychiatric services. “This new law is a high-water mark for Chinese psychiatry, and potentially for global mental health,” according to the editorial.
In comments to Psychiatric News today, lead author of the editorial Michael Phillips, M.D., said the new law is much more comprehensive than laws in other countries. “China’s experience in providing a more holistic approach to mental health problems will, hopefully, generate lessons that all countries can learn from,” he said. Phillips, who is executive director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Research and Training in Suicide Prevention at China’s Beijing Huilongguan Hospital, added, “Like the U.S., China is struggling with finding the right balance between the care and control of the mentally ill…. Both China and the U.S. need to work on finding the right balance between individual freedom, family responsibility, and protection of the community. There are no absolute answers to these issues, so the U.S. and China can learn from each other as they work towards finding the solutions that best fit their respective cultural and health-care environments.”