Guatemala to Eliminate Mental Asylum, Improve Health System


By Ian Van Buren

In the 1960s, the United States began to replace its mental asylums with much improved community based psychiatric treatment facilities. Today, poorly operated mental asylums still exist around the world. In Guatemala, the country’s only public psychiatric institution is nothing short of a disaster.

In 2011, Disability Rights International began an investigation over the country’s mental asylum with help from local advocates. In October 2012, the group filed a scathing complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, documenting widespread mistreatment of patients, including sexual assaults and exploitation, beatings, prolonged use of solitary confinement, deaths from infectious diseases and overdoses of psychiatric medication.

Donald Robas, a patient with paranoid schizophrenia, has witnessed much of the mistreatment and has described the activity of the patients and the asylum’s personnel; if a patient refuses their medication, they are beaten and then put into what is known as the “little room”, a cell where they are left in solitude. Women can be seen selling themselves for what equates to less than a dollar. “I see when they have sex for money,” he says. “To buy food.”

At first, the Guatemalan Health Ministry denied most of the allegations. Regardless, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found the charges credible and directed Guatemalan authorities to improve safety and health at the hospital immediately. A year of negotiations concluded in October with a groundbreaking agreement by Guatemala to overhaul hospital policies and restructure the country’s mental health system.

Guatemala has promised to establish a program that, within two years, will significantly reduce the population of those who are mentally ill or disabled serving in long-term institutions and relocate them to safer, community-based homes, such as those used in the United States. New inpatient psychiatric units are to be opened at general hospitals, while outpatient mental health care and support, including free medication, will be made available at dozens of community health centers throughout the country. Criminally charged psychiatric detainees will be separated from ordinary patients, and a law codifying substantial new legal protections for the mentally ill and disabled is to be introduced within a year.

“The government accepts that people with disabilities need to be integrated into the community. They recognize that the only way to make people safe is to get them out of the facility,” said Eric Rosenthal, executive director of Disability Rights International. “If we can do it in Guatemala, we can do it everywhere.”

Guatemala is certainly not the only country where abusive, problematic institutions still exist. In order for the issue to cease, citizens and human rights organizations must continue to work through the media to spread awareness in effort to help those who remain in distress.

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