Health and human rights — Promoting access to health and healing

On this World Human Rights Day, observed annually on December 10, let us take time to acknowledge mental health as a fundamental human right.

Dec 08, 2023

Informed Opinion - Prof Xavier V. Pereira
On this World Human Rights Day, observed annually on December 10, let us take time to acknowledge mental health as a fundamental human right. The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day, Mental Health is a Universal Human Right, underscored the importance of this often over-looked aspect of human rights.

The Right to Mental Health approach derives from the Right to Health frame work which was developed by Professor Paul Hunt, professor of Law at the University of Essex, and others in the Health and Human Rights movement. Paul Hunt was the first Health and Human Rights (Right to Health) Special Rapporteur to the United Nations.

I had the opportunity to participate in a Health and Human Rights symposium in London organised by the British Medical Council (BMC) and the University of Essex in 2008. Also present were many advocates for the Right to Health from countries across the globe. It was clear to all present that numerous people in many countries, especially LMICs (Low- and Middle-Income Countries) did not have access to basic healthcare, let alone quality healthcare. The people who had least access to health care were the people on the margins of society.

Persons with severe health problems, especially those who are poor, often live on the margins and lack access to quality health services. These include the rural and urban poor, migrants and migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees, and indigenous people.

Health systems can also impact on access to health care. Many developed countries have universal healthcare coverage. Some like Switzerland utilise a universal private health insurance system whereas others like the UK have a national system providing equitable healthcare available to all. The healthcare system in the US though has been heavily criticised for the lack of access for those who cannot afford insurance, namely the poor. Obamacare was a step towards providing healthcare to those who lacked financial access to health care.

In Malaysia there are two parallel healthcare systems, public and private. Access to consultations and treatments in the public health system in Malaysia, and many LMICs, is often hampered by the huge number of patients seeking treatment at government hospitals, the long waiting time before patients can consult a health professional and the lack of health professionals to address the health needs of the populace. Seeking treatment from a health professional in private practice can be financially taxing, especially for those who are socio-economically challenged and do not have personal or group health insurance. Issues of integrity, quality and charity are also challenges in accessing quality health care in private clinics and hospitals. The saying ‘What you see is not what you get’ also applies to some health professionals in private practice, and some private hospitals.

Creating access to health services, including health strategies of health education, prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation, should be motivated by the awareness that everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of health (UN Rapporteur for Health and Human Rights, 2002).

Jesus created access to healing. In fact, most of Jesus’ miracles were acts of healing. The Gospels are littered with narratives of Jesus healing all those who sought healing from Him. A significant passage of this kind of healing is in Matthew 8: 1 -3. A man with leprosy exclaimed, “Lord, You can heal me if You will.”

Jesus said to the man “I will. Be healed.” There are so many healing narratives in the Gospels. The daughter of Jairus (Mark 5: 21 – 43). The servant of the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10). The daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7: 24 -30). Jesus healed people from different ethnicities and backgrounds. He healed ALL who sought healing. He gave freely because He received the gift of healing freely. Thus, I believe Jesus is the ultimate role model for creating access to healing.

The healing work of God continued to be manifest in the early Church. The Acts of the Apostles is testament to the gifts or charisms of healing bestowed on the Apostles and disciples of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. There was healing of the blind (Acts 9:17 – 18), healing of the paralysed (Acts 9: 33 -35), healing of the lame (Acts 14: 7-9) and healing of the possessed (Acts 16: 16 – 18). These gifts of healing resurfaced in the twentieth century through the Charismatic and neo-Pentecostal movements in various churches including the Catholic Church. One of the pioneers of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal who possessed the gift of healing was Francis MacNutt who authored the best seller, Healing, a book that I would recommend highly. I believe that the tradition of prayer for healing through healing ministries should be encouraged in the Catholic Church, albeit in an organised way, so that people can have access to healing.

The Catholic Church is also known for her missionary work in the area of healthcare. I was blessed to have received training at St John’s Medical College and Hospital, India. The medical college (renamed St John’s National Institute of Health Sciences) celebrated its diamond jubilee this year, and it was evident at the jubilee celebrations that the institution had produced doctors, especially religious nun doctors who serve those who are at the margins of society. The various health facilities and hospitals set up by the Indian Catholic Church and its religious have created access to healthcare in places where there is a need for the provision of healthcare, especially in socio-economically deprived urban and rural areas.

In Malaysia, NGOs from both secular and faith-based backgrounds like Buddhist Tzu Chi, IMARET, an NGO comprising of Muslim health professionals, MERCY Malaysia, ACTS and Health Equity Initiatives, have provided access to health services including mental health services. Most of these NGOs have developed services to address the health of refugees, who have the least access to healthcare in Malaysia.

I believe that the Catholic Church in Malaysia needs to discern and decide upon strategies to provide access to healthcare for those who live in the margins and who are economically deprived, now that our mission hospitals have merged into the private sector. Health remains a universal human right.

(Xavier V. Pereira is a medical doctor, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, and an adjunct professor at Taylor’s University School of Medicine, Malaysia. He is co-founder and director of the NGO Health Equity Initiatives and former chair of the Health and Human Rights Committee of the Malaysian Medical Association. In the Catholic Church he serves as the founder and chair of the Catholic Counsellors and Therapists of Malaysia.)

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