Qatar’s Emir has signed off on a new law that for the first time gives residents with mental health conditions specific rights regarding their treatment.
The legislation includes details about where patients must be treated and how long they can be held against their will.
It also introduces stiff penalties for medical staff who abuse or neglect them, according to a copy of the law in Al Sharq.
Additionally, the law highlights that patients and his/her relatives should fully understand the nature of the treatments they receive.
Depression has become increasingly common in Qatar, affecting both nationals and expats.
Government figures state that one in five Qataris live with a mental disorder. And mental health issues are particularly common among women and young adults.
One of the main challenges here has been getting patients with mental health issues to seek appropriate help due to stigma, experts say.
Safeguarding human rights
Law No. 16 of 2016 on mental health has just been published in the official gazette and will come into force in less than two months.
This sets out how the country plans to develop its mental health services until 2018.
According to that document, the mental health law was to be enacted in December 2015. This means that it is now more than a year overdue.
The strategy pledged that the new law would provide “modern health legislation that safeguards and protects the human rights of people with mental illnesses in Qatar.”
Under the new law, mentally ill people in Qatar can only be treated in specialized mental health hospitals, either private or public.
They can also be treated in the psychiatric section or outpatient clinic of a properly licensed private or public hospital.
The patient has the right to get treatment in a safe and secure environment. This place should respect his or her dignity and human rights, the law states.
These institutions must keep the patients and their families or guardians informed about their care and rights at all times, it added.
If the patient is not capable of making his/her own decisions, their loved ones should be told about the diagnosis, test results and treatment plans beforehand.
For the first time, the law details when a patient in Qatar can be forced to remain in a mental health institution.
This requires a psychiatric consultant’s approval, and requires the patient being in a condition that is deemed to deteriorate imminently.
Committing a patient can also be done if they are likely to pose “a serious immediate or imminent danger” to themselves or others.
If admitted, the patient’s family or guardian, the director of the treatment institution and the Ministry of Public Health must be notified within 24 hours.
This notification must be accompanied by a report evaluating the patient, the law says.
It also lays down the circumstances in which patients can be made to remain in the hospital, even if they admitted themselves voluntarily.
It says that a doctor is allowed to prevent a patient who voluntarily enters an institution from leaving for up to 72 hours.
This is if they may harm themselves or others, or if the doctor feels that they cannot look after themselves due to their illness.
After this period, a proper assessment and due process must be undertaken before they are admitted on a compulsory basis, it said.
Additionally, patients who are forced to undergo treatment involuntarily can be held for three months at a time. This period can be extended “according to treatment needs.”
The law also specifies that Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is permitted in Qatar, but only under general anesthesia.
Written consent must be obtained from the patient or their guardian for the procedure if the patient lacks the mental ability to comprehend.
This can also be done if they are too young to give consent, the law states.
However, if a committed patient or his/her guardian refuses this treatment even though it is deemed necessary for their condition, he/she can be forced to receive it after an independent medical evaluation, the law adds.
Fines and jail sentences
The law also codifies four separate new crimes when it comes to mistreating patients with mental illness.
The first of these targets doctors who write bogus medical reports about patients to either bring about their admission to a hospital, or to get them discharged.
This crime carries a jail term of up to three years in jail and/or a fine of up to QR200,000.
Similar punishment awaits anyone who keeps a mentally ill person inside an institution that is “not designated for mental care.”
Furthermore, a one-year jail term and/or a fine of up to QR60,000 will now be given to staff – doctors, nurses and guards – who are found to have mistreated or neglected someone with mental illness.
Finally, negligence that causes a patient disability or disease will also be punished by up to a year in jail, and/or a fine of up to QR50,000.
You can read the law in full (in Arabic) here.