The social determinants of mental health and human rights: Finding common ground

Dr Yvette Maker1, Emeritus Professor Bernadette McSherry2

1Melbourne Social Equity Institute, University of Melbourne, Carlton, Australia, 2University of Melbourne, Carlton, Australia

There is a developing body of research indicating that individual and population-based mental health is affected by a range of “social determinants”. Discrimination, poverty, inadequate access to housing and education and exposure to violence, conflict and disaster have all been associated with poor mental health and mental illness.

International human rights treaties identify many of the social determinants of mental health as matters of human rights. However, there has been little attention paid to the connection between a social determinants approach and positive human rights such as the right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of mental health. While rights-based and social determinants approaches have individually gained some purchase in mental health policy and law reform, difficulties remain in translating these approaches into practice.

This paper explores the potential for incorporating elements of both social determinants and human rights approaches to provide a new framework for mental health policy and practice. While acknowledging potential challenges, the authors also identify several advantages to building common ground and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries. The social determinants approach provides a foundation for understanding the interconnectedness of a range of rights and draws attention to both individual and collective needs. A human rights approach, on the other hand, can help identify the measures that are required to secure the social determinants of mental health. Together, they can provide a new perspective on the intersections between psychiatry, psychology and law.


Dr Yvette Maker is a Senior Research Associate in the Melbourne Social Equity Institute and the Centre for AI and Digital Ethics at the University of Melbourne. Her work focuses on disability human rights law, social security law and policy, and the design and regulation of social care and support systems, including disability, mental health and aged care services. With Prof Bernadette McSherry, Dr Maker recently edited ‘Restrictive Practices in Health Care and Disability Settings’ (Routledge 2021), which explored different models for human rights-based regulation of the use of restraint and seclusion on mental health consumers and other service users.

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