Human rights and mental health

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to everyone. They cannot be taken away, although some can be restricted in certain circumstances.

*Last updated 9 June 2021

In the UK, our human rights are protected by the Human Rights Act 1998. It means all public authorities – including the government, police, NHS and local authorities – must treat everyone equally and with dignity, fairness and respect.

What is the Human Rights Act?

The Human Rights Act legally protects your human rights. There are 16 rights in total, and each one is referred to as an ‘article’. For example, article 10 is the right to freedom of expression.

You’re protected under the Human Rights Act if you live in the UK, including if you’re a foreign national, a child, detained in hospital or in prison. If a public authority doesn’t respect your human rights, you can bring a claim against them.

The Human Rights Act doesn’t apply to individuals or private companies such as employers. If you feel your employer has discriminated against you, read our page on stigma and discrimination.

What is a public authority?

All public authorities or bodies carrying out public functions need to follow the Human Rights Act. These include:

  • the government
  • local authorities
  • police, prison and immigration officers
  • NHS trusts and hospitals
  • courts and tribunals
  • schools
  • some housing associations, private care homes and private hospitals.

How does the Human Rights Act protect people with mental health problems?

If you have a mental health problem, the Human Rights Act means you should be treated with dignity and respect by staff and service providers. Mental health, social services and emergency services staff must comply with your human rights.

If you’re detained under the Mental Health Act (‘sectioned’), knowing your rights can be a way to question and change how you’re looked after.

What are my rights?

There are 16 rights or articles in the Human Rights Act. We’ve looked at the ones that are most important for people with mental health problems.

Article 2: the right to life

This means that nobody, including the state, can try to end your life. The government must make laws to protect you and, in some circumstances, protect you if your life is at risk. It also means the government must investigate suspicious deaths and deaths in custody.

Hospitals must take steps to protect your life. If you’re a patient who is at risk of attempting suicide, the hospital must make sure you don’t have access to the means to do this. If you’re detained under the Mental Health Act, they must ensure you can’t easily leave the building.

Article 3: the right not to be tortured

You should never be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way. This means in a way that causes intense physical or mental suffering. This could include police violence, poor prison conditions, or neglect or abuse in a care home.

In one case, the European court ruled that giving a patient a cheaper psychiatric drug with worse side effects than a more expensive one was inhuman treatment.

Being restrained isn’t generally seen as torture unless too much force is used, or it’s used to limit your movements beyond keeping you safe.

Article 5: the right to liberty and security

We all have the right to personal freedom: to move around and not to be locked indoors. However, there are times when this right can be taken away: if we’re arrested, imprisoned or detained under the Mental Health Act.

If you think you’ve been detained unlawfully, you can use article 5 to challenge it. This could be if the correct procedure wasn’t followed or you’ve been detained for longer than the law allows, for example.

Article 6: the right to a fair trial

Everyone has the right to a fair hearing. A fair hearing must be independent, impartial and heard within a reasonable time. This applies to:

  • mental health tribunals. These are panels you can apply to so you can be discharged if you’re detained under the Mental Health Act or held under a community treatment order (CTO)
  • hospital managers' hearings. These are similar to tribunals but less formal.

You have the right to:

  • present your case, either by yourself or with an advocate or adviser
  • see any documents that can help you challenge your detention
  • be given reasons for the decision that is made.

Article 8: right to a private and family life

Private life has a broad meaning. It means you can live your life with privacy and without interference from the state. It covers things like:

  • respect for your sexuality
  • your right to decide who sees and touches your body
  • how your private and confidential information is stored and protected
  • your right to develop your personal identity, friendships and other relationships.

Your right to family life means you can enjoy family relationships without interference from the government. This includes any stable relationship, for example between an unmarried couple, a parent and child, siblings, or grandparents and grandchildren.

This article also covers respect for your home.

Here are some examples of how this article could be breached.

  • You’re an in-patient and not allowed to see your partner or family.
  • You’re detained in hospital and not given information about your section or your rights to challenge it.
  • Your doctor gives information about your diagnosis and treatment to a neighbour or friend who calls them to ask about you.
  • You’re treated badly in a care home.
  • You’re given medical treatment or testing without your consent (although there are some exceptions).

Article 14: the right not to be discriminated against

This means your human rights must not be protected differently because of who you are. This article doesn’t protect you from discrimination in all areas of your life – there are other laws that give you that protection. Our page on stigma and discrimination has more information.

What can I do if my human rights haven’t been respected?

If a public authority hasn’t respected your human rights, you may be able to take action.

Before you start, identify which human right or rights have been breached. For example, if you were detained under the Mental Health Act but weren’t told why or given an opportunity to challenge it, this could be a breach of article 5 (the right to liberty and security).

Raise the issue informally

It’s often best to raise the issue informally first by talking to the person or organisation about what happened.

Make a formal complaint

Most public authorities have their own complaints procedure. If they don’t, make your complaint in writing. Explain what’s happened, how it’s affected you, and what you want to happen as a result: for example, an apology or a review of the decision that’s been made.

Taking your complaint further

You can contact a regulator or ombudsman if you’re not happy with the result of your formal complaint. Mind has more information about who to contact.

Take legal action

You can go to court if a public authority has breached your human rights. Or you can rely on your human rights in cases brought against you. For instance, if your local authority tries to evict you, this may be breach of article 8: right to a private and family life.

If you decide to take legal action, get advice from a trained advisor – for example, at Citizens Advice.