Bringing Dignity to Healthcare ; A Three-Year Study Spotlights Horrific Conditions in Mexico's Mental Institutions

By Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

Bringing Dignity to Healthcare ; A Three-Year Study Spotlights Horrific Conditions in Mexico's Mental Institutions


Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 group activities.

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 universal rights.

"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 human waste.

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. …

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