The World Health Organization is urging countries to adopt legislation to protect mentally ill people who, it says, are among the most vulnerable and least legally protected in the world.

The World Health Organization estimates more than 450,000 million suffering from various mental disorders are caught in, what it calls, a global emergency of human-rights violations.

It says a great many mentally ill people have no access to treatment. It says 90 percent of people with mental or neurological disorders may go untreated in many African countries.

And, in many countries where mentally ill people receive treatment, it says, the quality of that care is very bad. Furthermore, the head of the WHO Mental Health Department, Benedetto Saraceno, says these people are subject to the systematic violation of their human rights.

"Confinement, violence, physical restraint, undue lack of privacy, undue lack of basic rights," he said. "In general, we think that everywhere there is some kind of risk for people with mental disorders, of being, A, stigmatized, B, discriminated [against], and, C, mistreated."

The World Health Organization says, nearly one-quarter of all countries have no mental health legislation. It says many more countries do little to protect the human rights of people with mental disorders.

In some communities, it says people with mental disabilities are tied or chained to trees or logs. Others are imprisoned without having been accused of a crime. In many psychiatric institutions and hospitals, it says, people are restrained with metal shackles and confined in caged beds.

To right these wrongs, The World Health Organization is launching a project to help countries draw up legislation that will protect the rights of the mentally ill.

Study coordinator Michelle Funk says progressive mental health laws can be used to close psychiatric institutions that abuse patients. She says the resource book shows how law can help to improve the often appalling conditions in many health facilities.

"For example, very basic standards can be set that need to be respected in all mental health facilities. People need to be fed. They need to have clean clothing," she said. "They need to have access to clean water and to clean washing facilities and toilets. They need to have their privacy respected. Their medical records need to be kept confidential. They need to be able to communicate with the outside world, with their families and their friends, and have access to what is happening in the world and the community."

The World Health Organization says poverty should not be a deterrent to good care, because treating people with mental disorders is not very expensive. It recommends community mental health care services over large institutions.