India’s new Mental Health Bill decriminalizes suicide

India’s new Mental Health Bill decriminalizes suicide

Introduced in the Rajya Sabha in the 3rd week of August, 2013, India’s new Mental Health Bill is being praised for its sensitive approach to mental health, and its intention to factor in the mental state of an individual who attempts to commit suicide. The bill is historic since it has done away with the criminalization of suicide which made failed suicide attempts a criminal offense. This act of decriminalizing suicide brings forth much needed sensitivity on mental health issues such as depression and other clinical disorders which could drive an individual to commit acts of self-harm and violence. By making services such as counseling available and affordable to all, it is a positive sign that help is at hand for those in emotional and psychological distress.

Section 124 of the Mental Health Bill states, ““Notwithstanding anything contained in Section 309 of the IPC, any person who attempts suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to be suffering from mental illness at the time of the bid and shall not be liable to punishment under the said Section”.

As per the Bill, any individual who attempts suicide will be presumed mentally ill, and will be provided with appropriate and affordable mental health care services and treatment. This rights-based approach to mental healthcare has been requested for years, and has been welcomed nationwide by activists, healthcare workers, and law makers.

Citizens are also permitted to write what is called an “advanced directive” which will decide as to how they should be treated, should they become mentally ill or unstable. Insurance companies are forced, as a result, to make provisions on how to tackle mental conditions as they do with physical conditions.

Statistics from the World Health Organization [WHO] show how 1.8 lakh suicides occur in India, especially among the youth populous. Despite these high numbers, epidemiological research is yet to be done in order to ascertain the root causes which lie behind the suicides. With the recent suicide of young Bollywood actress Jiah Khan, the doors seemed to have opened in context with discussing suicide and treating suicidal people as non-criminals.

Little groundwork has actually been done in relation to understanding mental illness and putting it into a human perspective. Nobody is immune to mental illness; it can impact and affect any person at any given time. Yet there seems to be a shroud of shame and silence around this pressing issue which has already claimed many lives. While psycho-social counseling, medication, and various forms of therapy are in fact available in India, they are often expensive and reserved for a moneyed clientele which can afford high fees and the sometimes exorbitant cost of medication.

The new Mental Health Bill will override the 1987 Bill, and while its intentions are indeed laudable, one can only hope that the implementation aspect of it will be as far-reaching and useful to the less elitist masses who are suffering and in need of treatment. Overall however, the Bill is a step in a progressive direction, and with consistent, wide-reaching implementation, can certainly benefit a number of people.

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