Suicide no more a crime, patients to get cover

The Mental Healthcare Bill, which decriminalises suicide and guarantees the right to better healthcare for people with mental illness, was unanimously passed in the Lok Sabha on Monday.

It mandates that a person attempting suicide shall be presumed to be suffering from “severe stress” and, therefore, shall not be tried or punished by law. Further, the Bill mandates that persons with suicidal tendencies be provided help and rehabilitated.

The Bill was passed after a disruption-free five-hour debate, placing mental health patients at the centre of the legislation. “It was heartening to see parliamentarians discuss for five hours how to improve this Bill. We are, potentially, opening a new chapter in mental healthcare in India. Patients rights have been put at the heart of the legislation and the Bill approaches it from a rights-based perspective,” said Dr Soumitra Pathare, mental health expert who was a member of the drafting committee for the Bill.

This is the first mental health law to take a “rights-based” approach to mental illness by consolidating and safeguarding the rights of fundamental human rights of the patients.

“The Bill empowers the patients for mental healthcare. It gives them the right so that they are not denied [treatment] or discriminated against. The focus is on community mental healthcare … it is a rights-based Bill,” Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda said. While suicides due to insanity declined from 7% in 2010 to 5.4% in 2014, data from the National Crime Records Bureau say nearly 7,000 people killed themselves because of mental disorders in 2014.

Advance directives

The Mental Healthcare Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha with 134 official amendments last August. A unique feature of the Bill is that it allows adults to make an advance directive on how they wish to be treated in case they got mental illness in the future.

Such a person can chose a nominative representative who would take care of him or her, the Minister said. The Bill also promises free treatment for such persons if they are homeless or fall below the poverty line, even if they do not possess a BPL card. The Bill clearly defines mental illness adding that the earlier definition, under Mental Helath Act 1987 was vague. There are also provisions under which a person cannot be sterilised just because he or she is a mental patient. “As per this law, we cannot separate a child for three years… Also, one cannot chain a mentally-ill person,” Mr Nadda said in Parliament while introducing the Bill. “We tried to see that the patient is protected and no coercive methodology is adopted. Persons who will not adhere to it will be liable to penalty and imprisonment. This is a very progressive bill,” he added.

India is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international human rights treaty of the United Nations. Around 6-7% of India’s population suffers from some kind of mental illnesses, while 1-2% suffer from acute mental disease.