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The Interlink Between Mental Health and Human Rights

By Alexandra Posta and Mira Ivancheva

The Interlink Between Mental Health and Human Rights

By Alexandra Posta and Mira Ivancheva

The intricate interplay between human rights and mental health is pivotal for our collective well-being. Human rights, whether explicitly or implicitly enshrined in international human rights legislation, serve as the foundation for dignity, equality, and justice for every individual. Simultaneously, mental health is crucial for holistic well-being and influences one’s ability to fully enjoy and exercise their rights. However, despite their inherent connection, the intersection between human rights and mental health is often misunderstood or entirely unrecognised. This oversight demands attention, as the cyclical relationship between the two is of paramount importance.


Human rights violations do not only undermine an individual’s inherent dignity, but can also have devastating effects on their mental health. For instance, individuals subjected to discrimination, abuse, or violence may experience severe psychological distress, trauma, intense anger and even develop mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These psychological impacts can influence behaviour, potentially increasing the likelihood of engaging in unlawful activities. For example, trauma may lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms or impaired decision-making abilities, rendering individuals more susceptible to engaging in criminal behaviour.


Moreover, those who have experienced human rights violations may develop a profound distrust of governmental and legal institutions. This lack of trust can stem from experiences of betrayal by society or failure to receive justice. As a result, they may perceive the legal system as unjust or ineffective, which could further lead them to disregard laws or resort to illegal activities as a form of protest or rebellion against perceived injustice.


Conversely, poor mental health can impede an individual’s ability to exercise their human rights. Mental health conditions can impair cognitive functioning, decision-making abilities, and social interactions, hindering individuals from fully participating in society, making them vulnerable and excluded. Stigma and discrimination against those with mental health conditions further exacerbate this marginalisation, which puts them at greater risk of their right to equality being violated.


Across various marginalised groups, such as minorities, women, children, refugees, LGBTQI+ individuals, persons with disabilities, etc., the intersection of human rights and mental health is evident. Cases like Sandra Bland’s tragic encounter with law enforcement, Malala Yousafzai’s resilience after surviving an assassination attempt, Ishmael Beah’s trauma as a former child soldier, Nadia Murad’s advocacy for survivors of conflict-related trauma, Leelah Alcorn’s struggles as a transgender person, and many others illustrate the profound impact of systemic injustice on mental health.


Addressing this issue is crucial for promoting individual well-being and societal justice. Recognising the intersectionality of human rights and mental health, and providing comprehensive support and intervention, is essential for breaking the cycle of suffering and advancing collective well-being. 


Human rights instruments, including treaties, conventions, declarations, and other international agreements, play a crucial role in protecting mental health on a global scale. These instruments often explicitly recognise the right to mental health as an integral component of the broader right to health, emphasising the importance of mental well-being for individuals to lead fulfilling lives. For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) affirms the right to health, which encompasses both physical and mental health, as fundamental to human dignity. Similarly, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) recognises the right of persons with disabilities to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, including mental health, on an equal basis with others. Moreover, human rights instruments address various other issues that influence mental health, such as the right to education, freedom from torture, non-discrimination, employment, housing, and social protection, which are essential for promoting mental well-being and preventing discrimination and social exclusion. By codifying these rights into international law and establishing mechanisms for accountability and enforcement, human rights instruments provide a framework for governments and other stakeholders to uphold and protect mental health as a fundamental human right.


In summary, the intricate relationship between human rights and mental health underscores the imperative of addressing both issues concurrently to foster individual well-being and societal equity. Human rights violations deeply affect mental health, while poor mental health can impede the full exercise of human rights, perpetuating marginalisation and exclusion. Through diverse narratives from marginalised communities, it becomes evident that systemic injustices exacerbate mental health disparities, necessitating comprehensive support and intervention. Prioritising both human rights and mental health is paramount for building a more just, inclusive, and empathetic society.





[1] Malala Yousafzai. © University of King’s College, 2014, via Flickr, at .


[2] Pääministeri Marin ja rauhannobelisti Nadia Murad tapasivat Kesärannassa. © Laura Kotila, November 22nd, 2021, via Flickr at




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“Malala’s Story.” Malala Fund. Accessed March 18th, 2024.

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“Mental Health, Human Rights and Legislation.” United Nations. Accessed March 18th, 2024.

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