Mental Health: Research and the Role of Law

May 3, 2011, 2:28 PM

May is Mental Health Month. While that observance is more than sixty years old, mental health has only recently started to take its place as a critical public health action item.

Why the gap between observance and action?

In a recent report in Mental Illness, Law, and a Public Health Law Research Agenda (pdf) for the National Public Health Law Research Program — an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Temple University Beasley School of Law — John Petrila, J.D., LL.M, a professor at the University of South Florida, and Jeffrey Swanson, a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, say a variety of reasons have fueled the disconnect. They tick off stigma about mental illness; previous doubts about whether mental illness was a “real” illness; and the fact that mental health patients were often kept away from the community, limiting the public health focus on their needs.

“In the last decade, however,” say the authors, “numerous policymakers have concluded that the integration of mental health within public health is essential to improving care for people with or at risk for mental illnesses.”

Law has already played a role in shaping mental health policy and practice:

  • Constitutional principles have been used to challenge institutional confinement
  • Legislation has provided parity in insurance coverage for physical and mental illnesses
  • Legislation has reduced the impact of mental disabilities on access to employment and public accommodations.
  • State and federal laws also have expanded the use of coercion and denied people with mental illnesses access to products, such as guns, available to most citizens


The authors say the research agenda going forward should include items such as the legal infrastructure for dealing with mental illness; mapping state statutes on public health laws; studies on interventional law; and studies on implementing law that could improve care for people with mental illness.

Additional resources for helping improve care for people with mental illness are available from the American Public Health Association. Their resource site includes journals, research centers, government sites and community referral information.

Weigh in: Has your community increased its efforts on mental health issues?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.