China's mental hospitals: a new push to quash dissent?
Forced commitments to China's mental hospitals are rising on the local-government level, lawyers and activists say.
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"Ordinary people like petitioners have not broken the law, so officials can't send them to prison. They find it more convenient and a better solution to put them in a mental hospital," he adds. "They turn mental hospitals into jails."Skip to next paragraph
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They are able to do so, explains a recent report prepared by the Equity and Justice Initiative, a Shenzhen-based research group, because "major flaws in the Chinese involuntary commitment system … expose every citizen to the threat of arbitrary commitment."
China still has no law regulating forced commitments, although different drafts have been under study for 25 years.
Any close relative, an employer, or the police can commit someone to a mental hospital against his will with the approval of one psychiatrist, and psychiatrists can be browbeaten by local government officials into giving their approval, lawyers say.
Nor do Chinese psychiatrists apply such internationally accepted standards for forcible admission as the risk of harm to self or others.
'Whoever sends you in gets you out'
Once a patient has been admitted it is almost impossible for him or her to seek legal redress.
Most victims are not allowed contact with the outside world, explains Chen Jihua, a doctor-turned-lawyer who was recently refused access to a client seeking release from an asylum. "And even if a lawyer does get involved it is still very difficult to do anything" in the absence of a law, he says.
Adding to an involuntary patient's plight is the unwritten rule that "whoever sends you in gets you out," says the Equity and Justice Initiative report, released last year. "Unless the 'patient' secures the agreement of the person who has recommended treatment, there is no way to leave an institution," the report finds.
Zheng only got out, after nearly five months, because his father – a former Air Force pilot – knocked on a lot of official doors, Zheng says.
In the meantime, held in a cell with three genuinely disturbed men, "I nearly went mad," he recalls. Doctors obliged him to take an anti-psychotic drug each day, which made him drowsy, but otherwise gave him no treatment, he says.
"The only way they consider you cured is when you admit that you were totally wrong," Zheng charges. "There are no courts, no judicial procedures; the police can handle things themselves and it's the most effective way to destroy you."
"At the moment, one party, the police, can decide if someone should be sent for forced treatment," Mr. Chen, the lawyer, points out. "That is not appropriate. There should be third-party judgment of such cases … by a judge or an independent committee."
A new draft law is due to be submitted to the government this year, but some lawyers battling to end abuses of the mental health system fear it may not solve the problem since it has been drawn up by psychiatrists using medical standards. Lawyers, who would like legal standards such as "danger to self or others" applied, have been excluded from the process.
"If the law aims to protect individual rights" it might end the practice of forcibly committing sane people to a mental hospital, says Liu Xiaohu, a researcher with the Equity and Justice Initiative. "But if it legalizes the current situation, it will make things worse."
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