Study Finds Discrimination in Involuntary Mental Health Treatment in Australia

A study of 166,000 psychiatric care episodes in New South Wales, Australia, found that people born overseas, non-English speakers, and the unemployed are more likely to receive involuntary mental health treatment. The study's findings suggest non-clinical factors contribute to involuntary care, raising concerns over discrimination and autonomy in mental health care.

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Nitish Verma
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Study Finds Discrimination in Involuntary Mental Health Treatment in Australia

Study Finds Discrimination in Involuntary Mental Health Treatment in Australia

A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry has found that people born overseas, non-English speakers, and the unemployed are more likely to receive involuntary mental health treatment in New South Wales, Australia. The study, which examined over 166,000 episodes of psychiatric care between 2016 and 2021, highlights concerns over discrimination and autonomy in mental health care.

Why this matters: This study's findings have significant implications for the human rights of individuals with mental illness, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. Addressing these disparities is crucial to ensuring equitable access to care and promoting a more inclusive and just society.

The study revealed that 54% of admissions included at least one day of involuntary care. People born in Asia were 42% more likely to be treated involuntarily, while those born in Africa or the Middle East were 32% more likely. Non-English speakers were 11% more likely to receive involuntary treatment, and the unemployed were also at a higher risk. Additionally, people with psychosis or organic brain diseases were about four times as likely to be admitted involuntarily compared to those with anxiety or adjustment disorders.

The findings suggest that non-clinical factors contribute to the decision to impose involuntary care, raising concerns over discrimination and autonomy in mental health care. The authors note that the results align with international studies showing higher rates of involuntary treatment among people from black and ethnic minority groups and those living in areas of higher socioeconomic disadvantage.

Amy Corderoy, a medical doctor and PhD candidate at the School of Psychiatry, University of NSW Sydney, stated, "Our research not only highlights concerns regarding how involuntary psychiatric treatment is implemented, it's a first step towards decreasing its use. Without understanding how and when it is used, it will be difficult to create effective interventions to reduce it."

The study's authors call for legal reform to ensure that people with serious mental illness have the right to decline mental health treatment and for more care options outside of hospitals to be made available, particularly for disadvantaged communities. They also emphasize the need to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness and to tackle poverty and discrimination to prevent more people from becoming unwell.

Australia has one of the highest rates of involuntary admissions in the world, with a 3.4% annual increase. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has rejected Australia's declaration allowing for involuntary treatment of people with mental illness, stating it is a fundamental human right to be free from involuntary detention in a mental health facility.

The study, the largest of its kind globally, sheds light on the concerning disparities in involuntary mental health treatment in New South Wales, Australia. The findings underscore the urgent need for reforms to ensure equitable access to care and protect the autonomy and rights of individuals with mental illness, particularly those from disadvantaged communities.