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Launch Mental Health Brochures & Fact Sheets

Rights and Freedoms

Launch of Multicultural Mental Health Australia Brochures & Fact Sheets

Diversity in Health Conference, Sydney

DATE: 12.30pm - Monday 10 March 2008

I begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of this land.

Thank you for inviting me to launch these fact sheets.

Diversity in Health is a conference about health. Multicultural Mental Health Australia is a multicultural health service.  Vision Australia deals with issues and needs of people with print disability. What have these services and issues got to do with human rights, and why am I launching them? I'd like to reflect on these questions, and strongly argue that there is a fundamental connection between health and human rights.

Now, I could quote the numerous international conventions and declarations, not to mention various Australian laws, which seek to meet Australia's obligations under these international instruments. But whilst that might be entertaining for me as a human rights lawyer, it would be quite dull for most of you. So I'll entertain you rather than myself.

Human rights is about the equality and dignity of humans. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is 60 years old this year, outlines the main areas of human rights. Amongst these are rights to adequate housing, protection from harm, education, culturally appropriate leisure, to freely enter into marriage, to justice under the law, to adequate standards of health care.

Let's jump from the 1948 Universal Declaration, and consider the Ottawa Charter of 1986. It was drafted at the first international conference on health promotion, co-sponsored by the World Health Organisation.

The Ottawa Charter says that to reach a state of physical, mental and social well-being, an individual or group must be able to identify and realize aspirations, satisfy needs, and change or cope with the environment. Political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, behavioural and biological factors can all favour health - or be harmful to it.

The Charter states that the fundamental conditions and resources for health are:

  • Peace
  • Shelter
  • Education
  • Food
  • Income
  • A stable eco-system and sustainable resources
  • Social justice, and
  • Equity.

There is compelling evidence that populations with access to adequate housing, education, justice, health and culturally meaningful activities are more likely to be healthier.

So it's obvious, isn't it? Things which achieve good health outcomes are also human rights.

Australia's Human Rights Commission has a proud history in this area too. Often known as the Burdekin report, the National Inquiry into the Human Rights of People with Mental Illness in 1993 changed the direction of mental health services. For much of human history, people with mental illness were misunderstood, feared, discriminated against, and often confined in the most barbaric of circumstances. Human rights principles allowed us to shine a light on this situation.

So compelling was HREOC's report that, for the first time, the Commonwealth health department took an active roll in mental health services reform, and health promotion associated with it.  The Commonwealth has maintained its concern with mental health.  This has meant that there is funding for the kind of work that Vision Australia and Multicultural Mental Health Australia do at the national level, particularly in these fact sheets.

There are so many other areas where mental health and human rights are closely associated.  These include:

  • confinement and restriction in the movements of people
  • homelessness (given so many homeless people have a mental illness)
  • discrimination against people with mental illness in employment, education and access to other essential human services. Such discrimination is made worse by the inclusion of elements of discrimination due to race or ethnicity, or other disability. Here, as in so many areas, disadvantage strikes many times.

Treating medical conditions becomes so much more challenging when the patient has multiple illnesses - often treating one illness aggravates another, or medication creates new problems. Meeting the needs of a human service customer also becomes more complex the more this person deviates from what could be described as `the norm'.  The generally-healthy, middle class Australian-born customer is the median which services are tailored to.  The more a customer deviates from the norm, the harder it is for services to respond.

I'm sure it's tempting for many service providers to walk away from the really hard-to-manage clients.  Tempting though it may be, it's not acceptable. It is also a transgression of human rights.

These difficult clients may be chronically unemployed, poorly educated, or socially dysfunctional. They may often be unwell or unhealthy. But if they are Australian born they may be easier to deal with than the client who comes from a non-Australian background. Consider the person who comes as a refugee, with limited education and poor English, who may have been tortured, has multiple conditions such as physical disability, has been malnourished, is in partial employment, has inadequate housing, indulges in addictive behaviour (such as alcohol abuse) to manage the pain and confusion in their lives, and is struggling to understand the opportunities and rights they have in Australia. Such a person is high-need. Not only do they have high immediate needs for health, housing and wealth creation - they need to know their rights.  Because by understanding and exercising their rights, they will have greater opportunities to meet more immediate human needs.

I hope this doesn't sound too gloomy.  Australia, generally, faces up to these challenges well.  However, we must acknowledge they do exist. We must also acknowledge that we can always do more. That means service providers, governments, and advocates. My message is that human rights should be seen as an important ally for the health sector, which operates to meet one of the most essential of human needs.

Human progress, and humanity's overcoming of seemingly insurmountable challenges, is achieved by methodical and considered progress: incremental steps along a planned path. This is where the work of organisations such as MMHA, and Vision Australia is critical; in translating into other languages and into alternate formats for people with print disability- an issue of particular relevance to me of course. By doing so, you have ensured that these resources are available to all Australians- not just those who read in English or in print.

Information is a critical tool.  It's also an instrument of empowerment.  That is why information must be provided in many formats and languages so that people with a disability, or whose first language is not English, have their rights to information and knowledge respected. This is elementary to access, equity and social justice, not to mention the focus of the new Commonwealth government, to social inclusion.

I commend the collaborative work of Vision Australia and Multicultural Mental Health Australia. You see it as a health service.  I see it as meeting important human rights. Whatever it does, I'm very happy to launch it.