Lok Sabha witnessed a rare occasion on March 27. For six hours, members participated in the debate on the Mental Healthcare Bill, which was passed by Rajya Sabha last year. There was no disruption; no acrimony; no slogan-shouting. At the end of it, the House passed the Bill, giving the much needed relief and support to people with mental illness. It will potentially help the country, which is terribly lagging behind in this field, to catch up with advances made across the world. Up till now, people with mental illness were treated with pity, and arrogance too, but the new law recognizes them as citizens with rights, especially the right to get proper mental healthcare.
According to reports, almost 80 per cent of the people with mental illness receive hardly any treatment. This is evident from the fact that less than one per cent of the health budget is spent on mental health despite the gigantic problem in hand. This dismal state of affairs is exposed when one realizes that not even one psychiatrist is available for 1,00,000 people. This situation was created because we preferred to look at those poor souls not as human beings, but as objects devoid of any rights. The new law will, hopefully, change their fate.
It is now made imperative that mental health services should be available at district level. Presently, even well-functioning district hospitals do not offer regular psychiatric services. It is most unfortunate that the country had to wait for a law to render justice, and treatment, to those who are relegated to the margins of the society because of a mental state which has not been decided by them.
One of the most vital aspects of the new law is that it decriminalizes suicide. There is substance in the argument that no one has right to take one’s life. Those in support of suicide as a criminal offence took recourse to this argument. But, often the pressure from severe stress and mental illness leading to suicide over-rides the fear of criminalization. Now, people opting to snuff out own life due to vagaries of life will not be branded as criminals, giving some relief to their souls. The Mental Healthcare Act has set right the incongruity of the earlier law.
The new law is not all hunky-dory. There are grey areas of concern. This is best illustrated in the case of Charanjit, a psychotic patient, who spent close to 20 years in Tihar. Since he was not in a good shape to engage a counsel, his case never went for trial. And he had to spend 20 years in inhuman incarceration. This is a major miscarriage of justice, as mental illness is not given its due consideration by judiciary, police, prison authorities and medical profession.
All said and done, the success of this progressive law will depend on the will of various authorities to implement it in letter and spirit. The unusual unanimity seen in Parliament in passing the Bill should send the right signals to all concerned to do justice to the mentally ill. Changing a law is easier than changing mindset. But, the country has to take the difficult path.(Published on 10th April 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 15)#