Escape of 42 mental patients in Guangxi a sign that rights abuses persist

Breakout of 42 inmates from Guangxi mental hospital seen as a sign that changes to laws on forced confinement have not been implemented

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 4:53am

The dramatic escape of more than 40 patients from a Guangxi mental health institution over the weekend illustrates the daunting challenges still facing the mainland's psychiatric system despite the introduction of new laws, analysts said.

Some 42 mentally ill patients who broke out of the hospital in Tengxian county, Wuzhou city, on Friday night had all been accounted for by Saturday.

City officials told local media that seven of the patients - who had been sent to the hospital on police referrals, including two with criminal records - had held doctors hostage, grabbed the ward's keys and escaped. The others followed suit.

About 200 police and 400 other security officers searched for the fleeing patients. Within a day they were all found and returned to the hospital.

The saga reignited debate about whether some of the patients were genuinely ill and had been confined in the mental health ward against their will.

In October, the National People's Congress passed the country's first national mental health law, including a ban on forced confinement. Psychiatrists called the law a major step towards improving mental health care for millions of mainland residents and ending human rights abuses in which thousands have been sent to hospital involuntarily.

Human rights advocates complain that loopholes in regulations allow local officials to use the threat of institutionalisation as a weapon against petitioners.

Huang Xuetao , president of the Equity and Justice Initiative, a Shenzhen-based advocacy group, said some local governments such as Beijing and Tianjin municipality have released many mental patients since the new law came to effect in May "because the patients don't have to be admitted to hospital all the time".

"But many other local governments aren't taking any action," Huang said, adding that she wondered if Friday's breakout in Tengxian was in some way a protest by patients to achieve the freedom they deserved.