BEIJING: China's legislature on Friday passed a long-awaited mental health law that aims to prevent people from being involuntarily held and unnecessarily treated in psychiatric facilities - abuses that have been used against government critics and triggered public outrage.
The law standardizes mental health care services, requiring general hospitals to set up special outpatient clinics or provide counseling, and calls for the training of more doctors.
Debated for years, the law attempts to address an imbalance in Chinese society - a lack of mental health care services for a population that has grown more prosperous but also more aware of modern-day stresses and the need for treatment. Psychiatrists who helped draft and improve the legislation welcomed its passage.
"The law will protect the rights of mental patients and prevent those who don't need treatment from being forced to receive it," said Dr. Liu Xiehe, an 85-year-old psychiatrist based in the southwestern city of Chengdu, who drafted the first version of the law in 1985.
"Our mental health law is in line with international standards. This shows the government pays attention to the development of mental health and the protection of people's rights in this area," Liu told The Associated Press by phone.
Pressure has grown on the government in recent years after state media and rights activists reported cases of people forced into mental hospitals when they did not require treatment. Some were placed there by employers with whom they had wage disputes, some by their family members in fights over money, and others - usually people with grievances against officials - by police who wanted to silence them.
The law states for the first time that mental health examinations and treatment must be conducted on a voluntary basis, unless a person is considered a danger to himself or others. Only psychiatrists have the authority to commit people to hospitals for treatment, and treatment may be compulsory for patients diagnosed with a severe mental illness, according to the law.
Under the law, police still may send people for diagnosis - a common practice in many countries. Significantly, the law gives people who feel they have been unnecessarily admitted into mental health facilities the right to appeal.
Though questions remain over how the law will be enforced and whether sufficient government funding will be provided to enable the expansion of services, psychiatrists said the passage of the legislation marked a milestone
"It's very exciting. I honestly believe this will start a new trajectory," said Dr. Michael Phillips, a Canadian psychiatrist who has worked in China for nearly three decades and now heads a suicide research center in Shanghai.
Phillips said the biggest change for the psychiatric system is the curb on involuntary admissions. At least 80 percent of hospital admissions are compulsory, he said.
The expansive scope of the law - covering treatment, stigma prevention, admissions and other areas - made it "revolutionary," he added.