Halfway houses for mentally ill prisoners is a good step but many healthcare gaps remain | editorials | Hindustan Times
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Halfway houses for mentally ill prisoners is a good step but many healthcare gaps remain

The halfway house proposed by the Delhi court should be a template for other states where mentally ill prisoners tend to languish in jails or when released are left on the streets for want of medical assistance and rehabilitation

editorials Updated: Mar 27, 2017 19:20 IST
A schizophrenic at a ward of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Science in New Delhi (Representative photo)
A schizophrenic at a ward of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Science in New Delhi (Representative photo)(Gurinder Osan/HT)

If a person is mentally ill in India, he or she will be hard put to get proper help in time and will also face a lot of social taboos. When that person happens to be a prisoner, he is doubly condemned. This is why the Delhi high court has issued a number of directions to the state government to expedite setting up halfway houses for mentally ill prisoners so that they get treatment and are able to eventually reintegrate into society.

Now this is easier said than done, given that in the case of the mentally ill, whether prisoners or otherwise, neither society nor their families tend to welcome them back. This makes it imperative for the state to give them some sort of safety net beyond halfway houses.

As of now, according the National Crime Records Bureau, there are 5,394 mentally ill prisoners out of a total of 418,536 people in jails. The condition of women prisoners is especially pitiful as they are often left to the mercy of male wardens and other inmates. Mental illnesses are explained away as someone acting up until it is too late.

Psychological illnesses too are considered odd behaviour and not as real health issues in many cases.

India has a woeful lack of qualified mental health professionals despite a high incidence of such illnesses. In the case of prisoners, the conditions in most jails are such that they exacerbate existing mental illnesses. There are hardly any counsellors or psychiatrists to conduct evaluations on prisoners.

The court’s directive comes after an appeal by woman convicted of murdering her husband and step-daughter and who was later found to be schizophrenic. In fact, those with mental illnesses are often subject to vicious harassment within jails leading to their condition worsening.

There is no reason why, with proper treatment, a mentally ill prisoner cannot be rehabilitated into society. For this, we need much more awareness that mental illness, like other diseases, is treatable and curable.

In many mental health institutions, patients are manhandled and abused simply because their behaviour is considered deviant. A priority has to be training mental health professionals to deal with both inmates and others in a scientific and humane manner. Nearly 60 million Indians suffer for one or other form of mental disorder and yet just a paltry 0.06% of the health budget is spent on this.

The halfway house proposed by the Delhi court should be a template for other states where mentally ill prisoners tend to languish in jails or when released are left on the streets for want of medical assistance and rehabilitation.