A month ago, Massachusetts became one of the only governments in the world to recognize that its citizens have a basic human right to fresh air — especially while undergoing treatment for a mental illness. Outgoing Governor Deval Patrick surprised mental health advocates with his signing into law the “Fresh Air” act.
The law adds the right to “daily access to fresh air and the outdoors” to persons confined in inpatient psychiatric facilities in the state.
Jonathan Dosick, a long-time champion of mental health rights in the state, had been tirelessly working to get the Fresh Air bill passed since 2005. Ten years later, his efforts have finally paid off.
It may seem a little hard to understand why you would need a law to guarantee inpatients the right to something that is already freely available — fresh air. But if you spend any amount of time in nearly any psychiatric inpatient facility in the U.S., you’d quickly understand how little patients see of the outdoors.
Despite the benefits of spending time outdoors and in nature, most patients will never see the outside during their stay inside the cold, white antiseptic walls of most psychiatric inpatient hospitals. There used to be one small exception — when patients were allowed to go outside to smoke. With many facilities becoming “smoke free,” however, even that option has been taken away from patients.
The news release from the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee explains the importance of fresh air:
Although the right to daily time outdoors may seem trivial when compared with the extant Five Fundamental Rights (which protect access to telephones, mail, visitors, privacy and dignity, and legal counsel respectively), to those who have experienced life inside a psychiatric unit of a hospital or other inpatient facility, the promise of even temporary reprieve from their confines can have important implications for those persons’ mental health and recovery prospects.
Dosick notes the new bill doesn’t have strong enforcement provisions, much like the existing Fundamental Rights of patients.
“It is part of the long struggle for dignity and rights for a population that is all too often marginalized and denied basic civil liberties,” noted Dosick.
Supporters of the bill were thankful it passed, even with its weakened enforcement provisions.
“People deserve daily access to fresh air,” said Senator Pat Jehlen. “It’s just that simple.”
“Fresh air and the outdoors do not just symbolize freedom. They are physical connections to our humanity, and they promote healing and recovery,” said Rep. Denise Provost.
We couldn’t agree more. The residents of Massachusetts should be thankful they have such hard-working advocates looking out for these basic tenets of human dignity. I know I am.
Read the full release: Fresh Air Press Release (PDF)