Change and Continuity: A Historical Overview of the Significance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to Mental Health Law

Piers Michael Gooding


This article will provide a brief historical background to mental health law in order to gain a greater sense of the significance of international human rights law to civil commitment legislation today. Historical context will help to identify the purpose and objectives of mental health law, which in turn assist in weighing into the major debates currently underway. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD), in particular, has brought major changes to the way mental health law is understood, including strengthening longstanding critiques, and adding novel critical perspectives. Three ‘eras’ of mental health law are examined: the pre-modern origins of mental health law and 19th century regulation; the ‘medicalising’ shift of the 20th century; and deinstitutionalisation and ‘rights-based legalism’. These distinct periods of thought will help to critically assess what appears to be a new reform era in which international human rights law will set a new agenda for transforming or even abolishing mental health law as it currently stands.

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