The Defenders

Gábor Gombos

“When physical, environmental, attitudinal barriers and legal disqualifications are removed and support, reasonable accommodation and capacity-building are provided, people with and without disabilities can join their efforts to tackle local and global challenges, to make this planet a more just place for all.”

Gábor Gombos was born in Hungary to a mother who battled severe depression. By the time he reached his teens, he had seen how electroshock therapy was stealing his mother's memory and personality. Years later, after a suicide attempt, his mother was put under the care of the National Institute of Psychiatry. During this time, Gombos witnessed how she was stigmatized, robbed of any rights and treated inhumanely. After her death, Gombos discovered significant evidence that her passing was due to negligence of the part of the mental care system. This injustice has fueled Gombos's dedication to protecting the rights of psychiatric patients ever since.

Between 1977 and 1990, Gombos himself was confined to psychiatric wards in Hungarian hospitals four times. He emerged determined to overhaul psychiatric care, first in his country and then across Europe. In 1993, Gombos helped found the first organization focused on Hungarian mental health issues. The following year, he cofounded Voice of Soul, Hungary's first organization for ex-users and survivors of mental health facilities.

Gombos is cofounder of the Hungarian Mental Health Interest Forum, a three hundred-member organization designed to incubate and network consumer organizations, patient councils, and patient support groups for the mentally disabled. The Forum is building consumer (people receiving psychiatric care) organizations throughout Hungary, which mobilize patients to become active social change agents. Consumer organizations, run by individuals receiving psychiatric care, conduct site visits at different social care facilities, document human rights violations, and publicly share their findings. Patient councils serve as governance bodies for social care facilities, giving patients a voice in the design, planning, and implementation of social care facilities and programs. Additionally, Gombos has developed a training curriculum for institutional workers designed to raise empathy towards and understanding of psychiatric patients.

Gombos is active in protecting patient rights at the policy level as well. With several Hungarian and foreign partners (including patients) from Slovakia, Romania, Poland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, and the United States, he organized an effort to influence state policy by building a common strategy. They succeeded in changing certain paragraphs in the Hungarian Social Law about guardianship. He has been one of the key actors in developing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ensuring its implementation in Hungary. Today, Gombos is world-renowned as an advocate for the rights of individuals with mental health disabilities.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Roughly 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, making mental disorders one of the leading causes of illness and disability worldwide.

Treatments for these conditions are available, but nearly two-thirds of people with known mental health disabilities never seek help from a health professional. This is the result of stigma, discrimination and neglect. At present, more than 40% of countries have no mental health policy and over 30% have no mental health program; around 25% of countries have no mental health legislation.

People living in poverty often bear the greatest burden of mental health disabilities, both in terms of the risk of developing a mental disorder and the lack of access to treatment. Exposure to severely stressful events, dangerous living conditions, exploitation and poor general health all contribute to the increased vulnerability of this population. The lack of access to affordable treatment can increase both the length and severity of mental illness, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and mental health disabilities that can be very difficult to break.


  • Read an interview with Gabor Gombos here.
  • Read about mental health advocacy around the world here.
  • Share information about mental health disabilities found here.
  • Learn how you can become an advocate for mental health awareness here.


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Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.