It is an issue rarely talked about openly by most Indians, which explains why there was so much appreciation when actor Deepika Padukone spoke about her battle with depression. At least six-seven per cent of Indians suffer from some form of mental illness and the 134 amendments to the Mental Health Care Bill 2013 passed in the Rajya Sabha seek to address this. The main problem in tackling this issue has been the lack of data. But equally worrying is the huge dearth of psychiatrists and infrastructure to deal with this. At last count, there was only one psychiatrist to four lakh people, and this is not counting those suffering from relatively hidden illnesses like depression — WHO puts the figure at 27% of the population. The most commendable part of the bill lies in decriminalising the attempt to suicide. At present, it is punishable with one year in prison or a fine or both under Section 109 of the IPC. The amendment suggests that attempt to suicide will be treated as being the result of mental illness. It also does away with electro-convulsive therapy for mentally ill children. The provisions of the bill as it stands after the amendments will help in dealing with a number of issues which affect the mentally ill.
One of the real challenges is in increasing the number of mental health professionals in the system. The other is for people to come forward and seek help, something they rarely do at present given the taboo associated with this illness. Women, particularly in rural areas, are subjected to great stress just carrying out daily chores like fetching water from distances, bringing up children in challenging circumstances and living in a patriarchal and oppressive social milieu.
There are very few facilities where women with mental illness can be treated and even fewer which deal with their rehabilitation in society. The bill rightly speaks of not separating a mentally ill mother from her child, circumstances permitting, while she undergoes treatment. While the intentions of the bill are laudable, much of it will fall through the cracks unless the appropriate infrastructure is set up. A Central and state mental health authority which is proposed to be set up could help in this. Now that this bill has come about with its far-reaching amendments, both the state and Centre must make every effort to see that the mentally ill are no longer marginalised in the health system as they have been for so long.