In China, mental illness isn’t just a condition. It’s also used as an excuse—by relatives, the police, and the government—to lock people in institutions against their will. It happens frequently enough that there’s a phrase to describe it: “getting mentally ill-ed.”
Take one of best-known cases, Chen Guoming, whose wife and relatives drugged, bound, and committed him to a psychiatric ward in 2011 afer he refused to loan money to his father-in-law. Even after doctors overturned a diagnosis that Chen had a paranoia disorder, he wasn’t released until his sister vouched for him. In all, he was held for 56 days.
China began implementing its first mental health law on April 30, which should in theory prevent more people from suffering Chen’s fate. The new law, which took 27 years to draft, bars people with mental health problems from being forced into inpatient treatment, except for “severe cases” or when a person endangers him or herself, or others.
It’s a step forward in the rights of Chinese people, mentally ill or not. Some say the law could stop the use of mental illness to repress dissent. Police and local government officials often offer hospitals money to lock away “troublemakers,” Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, tells Quartz. These are usually political political dissidents, activists, or petitioners—residents attempting to formally complain against local governments.
But there are reasons to worry about the law’s effectiveness. “The Mental Health Law doesn’t really define what ‘endangering’ means; it allows psychiatrists to make the decision to detain someone, and does not allow the courts to oversee the process,” Wang says. Wang says the law probably won’t deter police from pressuring hospitals to take in those deemed troublemakers.
And as Chinese bloggers point out (registration required), what counts as a “severe” case of mental illness is not clearly defined, giving authorities still more leeway. The law also doesn’t appear to change China’s secretive network of police-run psychiatric wards, where political prisoners can be held for years. Southern Metropolis Daily, a Chinese newspaper, points out that a provision in the law allowing people to turn over allegedly sick family members to the government is vague and worrisome. “It remains to be seen whether the law will put an end to the practice of getting mentally ill-ed,” the paper says.
Moreover, the law does little for China’s residents with real mental health problems. (Some scholars say China has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the world.) Attacks on school children by men, many of whom are mentally ill, have continued since 2010. Yet awareness is low, and while the new law calls for more mental health professionals that the country desperately needs, the government hasn’t outlined any concrete plans to train more experts. “In reality, the Mental Health Law does little to foster an environment where those with mental illness can lead an independent life and be accepted by society,” Elizabeth Lynch wrote for China Law & Policy.