The Mental Healthcare Bill- Progressive or idealistic?


The Mental Healthcare Bill 2016, passed by the Lok Sabha on Monday, aims to provide for mental healthcare and services for persons with mental illness and ensure these persons have the right to live a life with dignity but not being discriminated against or harassed. With the Lok Sabha’s assent to the legislation, the Mental Healthcare Bill 2016 secured parliamentary approval as it earlier passed by the Rajya Sabha in August 2016.

An estimated 6-7% of the country’s population suffers from some kind of mental illness, while 1-2% suffers from acute conditions.

The new mental health care bill that decriminalizes attempt to suicide and bans use of electric shock therapy for treating children with mental illness was passed by Parliament. The Bill takes the patient’s consent and confidentiality seriously and also provides for legal aid.

An important factor in the Bill is that it separates attempt to suicide from the Indian Penal Code. In effect, IPC provisions cannot be invoked in case of an attempt to suicide. The Bill decriminalizes suicide assuming it is taken under extreme mental stress, which is triggered due to a mental condition.

Recent statistics suggest that nearly 60 million Indians suffer from one or the other form of mental disorder and yet just a paltry 0.06% of the health budget is spent on this. A 2005 survey by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare shows that communicable diseases contribute 50 percent of the disease burden in India. According to a 2016 survey by National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) , mental disorders in the Indian population now comprise 10.6 percent of the total disease burden, while a Lancet study shows it to be around 12%. This makes it approximately 150 million Indians. According to NIMHANS, there are more than 700 crore mentally ill people and less than 4000 doctors to treat them, and most doctors are concentrated in two-tier or metropolitan cities. It hence becomes really  difficult for families to cope with very less psychiatric facilities in small towns and villages.

Considering all this, the Bill hence does take a progressive step to better mental health care and facilities in India in general. The Legislation  has been well received,  and we finally see the focus of discourse moving from treatment to the rights of individuals, which is a positive development. The Bill acknowledges the rights of mental health patients as humans before anything else, and places this quality over their mental illness. The Bill in general has been made human and community centric, as also mother centric, considering it prevents separation of the child/children from the mother under all circumstances, unless under extreme conditions. The Bill mandates for the government to set up state-of-the-art medical care for citizens of India.

Undoubtedly, there are a lot of positives of the Bill and the Bill might actually spell better times for mental health care, however some criticisms might also be highlighted for better understanding. The Bill decriminalizes suicide. Earlier, according to provisions, Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) clearly stated as follows: “Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or both.” However despite this, suicide cases in the past few years have only increased. Despite a one year jail term and fine, the number of people committing suicide has only gone up. How then, do we think, decriminalizing it would affect the population? What if after this, the number of suicides increase by manifold? What guarantee does decriminalizing it provide? Well, we aren’t assured.

Also, Indian society views mental illness as a fault of the individual, caused due to internal or external factors. Biological factors are not understood and negligence plays a very negative role in this. Myths such as mental illness caused by supernatural forces or sorcery is prevalent in rural and urban areas in many parts of India. Hence, before the implementation of such a Bill, basic knowledge to all about mental health is imperative, especially in rural areas, where people just sideline such people calling them names like ‘pagal’. Strong measures must be taken to educate the public with the scientific basis behind mental illness. Mental health education must be introduced at the school level, along with physical health and education.

Some basic issues of the Bill is also that it curtails the role of family, as also no clear budget allotment. Planning seems to be far fetched in terms of implementation. Long term implication of the same hence seems vague. The Bill is good, but is idealistic in various aspects, especially with respect to the Indian context.

With this mindset heavily entrenched in the social psyche, changing viewpoints is imperative and well worth the time and effort. However this seems to be the ‘iceberg rising from under the water’ for Indian legislation in general. Hopefully, it will prove its worth and make us hope for similar good legislation in the future.


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