The international human rights system offers a useful framework for the promotion of mental health. The international human rights discourse today widely recognizes mental health as a basic human right. The right to physical and mental health was first enunciated in the Constitution of the World Health Organization in 1946, which states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being”. The United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) also articulates this in Article 12, when it recognizes “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.
Beyond merely acknowledging the right to mental health, the international human rights discourse recognizes that certain sociopolitical and economic conditions need to exist in order to promote the mental well-being of the population. Indeed, the right to mental health extends to the underlying determinants of mental health and is dependent upon the realization and enjoyment of a range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Certain people and groups within society are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations. Factors such as discrimination and marginalization increase their propensity for developing mental health problems as well as acting as a barrier to accessing appropriate health care services. The human rights discourse recognizes the need for countries to pay particular attention to the needs and interests of such people, as well as the necessity to adopt specific measures in order to safeguard and realize their rights, including their right to mental health.
The international human rights framework thus offers useful guidance to governments in understanding the requirements for creating the necessary social, economic and political conditions to promote the mental health of the population.