No change yet to Mental Health Act for people with disabilities

Samoans with disabilities are no closer to seeing mental health legislation amended to meet their needs, according to the National Human Rights Institution.

Until today, the Mental Health Act 2007 has not been reviewed to match internationally-recognised terms for people with mental disabilities as having “psychosocial” disabilities.

The head of the disability advocacy organisation, Mata’afa Fa’atino Utumapu said words like incapacity and disorder should also be changed in the act.

“It has language that implies that people with disability, including those with mental health issues, they do not have rights,” she said.

“It’s very important that the act is amended to ensure that everyone with disabilities has all human rights on an equal basis with others.”

The issue was raised in a new report, where the Office of the Ombudsman has reviewed all 65 human rights recommendations made to government between 2015 and 2017. 

One recommendation made in 2016 was that the National Health Service, now merged with the Ministry of Health (M.O.H.) should review the Mental Health Act 2007 and ensure it complies with an international treaty on disability.

Samoa ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (C.R.P.D.) in December 2016, committing to treat such people with the ability to make decisions about their lives, and people who should enjoy full freedoms in society.

The 2016 recommendation suggested the law be amended before the convention was ratified but that timeframe was not met.

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The reviewed recommendations were given a grade from A to F based on how well they have been implemented. The suggestion to amend the Mental Health Act is the only one to receive an F, for no action at all.

In this new report, the Ombudsman states: “Government through the M.O.H. should ensure that the Mental Health Act 2007 is reviewed and amended to be compliant with C.R.P.D. and also in light of the completed legislative compliance review.”

Last August, a United Nations human rights office representative told the Samoa Observer that if the legislation is not changed, Samoa will struggle to get funding from her office.

It’s not a completely dire situation though, Kavita Naidu said.

“I think that Samoa has done very well in terms including disability as one of the grounds of discrimination both in education and the employment so it’s a step ahead in that sense.”

N.O.L.A made a written submission to the office in May this year regarding the un-amended legislation.

But Mata’afa, who is the General Manager of the organisation said she understands it takes time to amend an act, and only expects to see change within the next five years.

In the meantime, she is seeing positive changes including better access to healthcare services for P.W.Ds, and said M.O.H is responding to their needs.

“Maybe in that act alone, no action has been taken but things are progressively changing,” Mata’afa said.

“I think we can say while progress is made in the area of health we are still recommending and we are still concerned with the lack of emphasis in the national Mental Health Act.”

Nearly three years after the convention was ratified, Mata’afa does not believe the Government is lagging too far behind when it comes to improving life for its citizens with disabilities.

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