It is a humane approach to giving to those who are pushed to the edge. The Lok Sabha has passed the new Mental Healthcare Bill 2016 which decriminalises attempt to suicide and bans the use of electric shock therapy for treating children with mental illness. Significantly, the provisions of the IPC can’t be invoked in attempts to suicide any longer. In India, suicide is among the top 10 causes of death, with the National Crime Records Bureau recording 1,31,666 suicides in 2014, up 15.8% since 2004. It is also the leading cause of death among young Indians between ages 15 and 29 . Since a person undertakes such an extreme step under enormous mental stress –usually triggered by mental illness —to criminalises suicide will be a double blow to the victim. A person who is so depressed that he doesn’t want to live, needs empathy and not incarceration.
The Mental Health Care Bill is a reformist piece of legislation in other ways too. It empowers those with mental health disorders to choose their mode of treatment, say no to institutionalisation, and also provides an opportunity to people to give advance directions on the kind of treatment they want in case they were diagnosed with a mental illness. In these ways, it makes a clean break from the Mental Health Act of 1987, which emphasised on institutionalised care, at times encouraging families of the mentally-ill to abandon them at ‘asylums.’ One of the key new provisions is to do with respecting the dignity of people suffering from conditions that require the intervention of psychiatrists. It bans the use of electric shock therapy for treating children with mental illness and permits only conditional shock therapy on adults, after they’ve been administered anaesthesia and muscle relaxants.
An estimated 6%-7% of the country’s population suffers from one or the other mental illness. Given that mental disorders can trigger suicidal thoughts, a patient-friendly legislation might not be enough. We need to shed certain ingrained attitudes. People are known to lock away their loved ones rather than admit that someone in the family needs psychiatric treatment. Gradually, the stigma is giving way to acceptance for psychiatric counselling: even the prime minister is batting for it. This support can also come from a friend, colleague or a loved one, but it is best dealt with by professionals. Trained counsellors can pick up the danger signals that can help avert suicide. And suicide helplines can convince those gripped with anxiety to give life another chance.