As a child, Socorro Torres was abandoned on the steps of a
Mexican psychiatric hospital. For decades, she endured subhuman
treatment there unimaginable in a world of expanding human rights.
When she came to Casa Dignidad - Dignity House - a Mexico City
community care facility for the mentally disabled, she wore diapers,
and couldn't open a door. Today, "she is a lady," Dignidad's
administrators proudly note, caring for herself and participating in
Until two years ago, Martn Garca was in and out of state mental
institutions, called "farms." He lacked clothing, proper hygiene,
and was for the most part inactive.
But now Mr. Garca takes public transportation on his own every
weekday to Dignidad's day program. The former draftsman is working
in painting workshops, prepping for a play, and dreams of returning
to his career.
Garca and Ms. Torres exemplify what mental health specialists
have maintained for years: that small-scale, community-based care
facilities are almost always more humane and produce much more
encouraging results than large institutions for the mentally ill.
But when it comes to Mexico's mentally disabled, the two are among
the fortunate few.
In a report based on three years of visits and studies, a
Washington-based human rights organization that focuses on the
plight of the world's mentally disabled puts a spotlight on the
horrific conditions facing most of the estimated 7,000 adults and
children in Mexico's mental institutions. Issued here last week by
Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI), the report has
Mexican mental-health officials leaping to respond.
"What I saw going on in Mexico is as bad as anything I've seen in
the world," says Eric Rosenthal, MDRI's executive director who has
been touring Mexican mental institutions - sometimes after sneaking
in with video camera in hand - since 1996.
MDRI has completed similar reports on countries in Eastern Europe
and South America. And, at a time when the human rights of so many
groups from prisoners of conscience to Indians and sexual minorities
are receiving expanded international attention, Mr. Rosenthal and
his organization's broader goal is to see the mentally disabled
brought out of their isolation and guaranteed the same basic
"We've seen children abandoned in appalling conditions in Russia,
people locked in cages in Hungary, and people forced to live in
their own filth in Mexico," says Rosenthal. "But none of it gets the
international response that equivalent human rights abuses in other
settings would have got."
The MDRI report, which was presented to the Mexican government
before its public release Feb. 17, concludes that the vast majority
of Mexicans held in mental institutions could be better served in
community care programs. To the untrained observer that might seem
optimistic, after viewing Rosenthal's videos of institution patients
tied to wheelchairs or shuffling aimlessly and barefoot through
But Mexican mental-health experts confirm MDRI's conclusions.
"Eighty percent or more of the people in psychiatric hospitals are
able to become self-sufficient," says Virginia Gonzlez Torres,
director of the Mexican Foundation for the Rehabilitation of the
Mentally Ill. …