When mental illnesses become disabling, they are called psychosocial disabilities. Persons with psychosocial disabilities are therefore also protected under instruments such as the UN Convention on The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which South Africa is also a signatory, and also the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) actively works towards ensuring that the rights of people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities are upheld. Persons with mental disabilities (those with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities) have rights, are capable of claiming those rights, and can make decisions about their lives, based on their free and informed consent. They are also able to function as active members of society.
Persons with mental disabilities face various forms of inequality and discrimination in their lives and their rights, as outlined in the UNCRPD, are routinely violated. Members of the public are often also unaware of the UNCRPD and its implications for persons with disabilities and those who interact with them, be it in the community, in the family home, as part of service provision, in institutional settings (e.g. health and correctional facilities) or in the workplace.
As South Africans commemorate Human Rights Day on the 21st of March, SAFMH would like to remind the nation that persons with mental disabilities also have human rights. SAFMH, whose core function is the promotion and preservation of human rights, receives frequent requests for legal support from persons with mental disabilities or their families. Whilst SAFMH is unable to physically resolve matters that require urgent legal intervention, it makes every effort to link persons by making referrals to appropriate avenues for support that might be available. However, legal personnel and legal organisations skilled in working with persons with mental disabilities are scarce, particularly on a pro bono basis, which is what is normally required by those making enquiries.
In commemoration of Human Right Day 2020, SAFMH would, therefore, like to call on legal organisations and independent legal personnel to consider becoming one of the entities to which it can refer such matters.
Not having adequate legal representation negatively impacts on persons with mental disabilities‘ rights, which include; the right to equality before the law and the right to human dignity as outlined in the South African constitution.
Human rights violations affect persons with mental disabilities severely as they form part of the marginalised groups of society, needing to continuously deal with the impact of stigma and discrimination attached to their disabilities. A large number of those experiencing human rights violations don’t report it, some don’t know where to report it and others who do report it often find that their cases end up unresolved.
Mental health is an often-neglected area of health and human rights, desperately requiring swift interventions. Unfortunately, so many people fall between the cracks, finding that no help is available to them. SAFMH would like to see this change and calls on others to do their part in ensuring that we uphold the values enshrined in our constitution.
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