Mental Healthcare Act 2017 with special emphasis on Decriminalizing Suicide

    In times where mental health is being given importance and efforts are being made to erase mental stigmas, let’s take a look at the legal condition of mental healthcare in India.

    The Mental Healthcare Act 2017 was passed by the Indian Parliament on 7th April. It brought changes to the earlier existing Mental Healthcare Act of 1987. The act provides for –

    ” mental healthcare and services for persons with mental illness and to protect, promote and fulfill the rights of such persons during delivery of mental healthcare and services and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”

    The Act harmonizes itself with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (2006).

    Revisions made in the Act

    • The act allows persons suffering from mental illness to take decisions with respect to their health and treatment received, provided that have relevant knowledge to do so.
    • The act lists the rights assigned to the mentally ill people which majorly include-
      1. Right to avail equal treatment without being discriminated on grounds of religion, sex, sexual orientation, culture, caste, political beliefs and disabilities.
      2. People with mental illness living Below Poverty Line, irrespective of the fact they hold a BPL card or not, if homeless, will be provided free of cost treatment by the establishments set up by the respective state governments.
      3. Each mentally ill person has the right to live with dignity and thus will not be segregated from the society.
    • The act provides a procedure for registration of mental health establishments.
    • The Act has restricted the usage of Electroconvulsive Therapy (electric shocks) on minors. It is to be performed on adults ONLY with use of muscle relaxants and anesthesia. It further prohibits sterilization and tying persons with chains as a method for treatment.
    • The Act decriminalizes suicide by a mentally ill person .
    • The punishment for violating of provisions under this Act will be imprisonment up to 6 months or Rs. 10,000 one or both. Repeat offenders can face up to 2 years in jail or a fine of Rs. 50,000–5 lakhs or both.

    Decriminalizing Suicide

    Section 309 of the IPC

    Sections 309 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes attempted suicide as well as suicide assistance. It states-

    Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both.

    This provision was declared as an ultra vires to Article 21 of the Constitution. But this decision of the Supreme Court was later overruled in Smt. Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab case. Arguments made on this legal stance included that if a person has the right to move freely throughout the country, he also has the right not to. Similarly, if a person has the right to life, he also has the right to not live.

    The Mental Healthcare Act does not repeal this section. Instead it offers presumption of mental illness to it.

    According to Section 115 of the Act, persons who attempt suicide will be presumed to be mentally ill unless proven otherwise. He would not be punished. The government would provide proper healthcare to all such people.

    CURRENT STATUS- In 2014, Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary in Rajya Sabha stated that the government has taken the decision to delete Section 309 from the IPC. In 2015, the same stated that the proposal has been sent to the Legislative Department of the Ministry of Law and Justice for drafting up a bill.

    Decriminalizing Suicide: good or bad?

    Around 8,00,000 people die of suicide worldwide every year. Out of these, 17% are residents of India. Failed suicide attempts further burdened with prosecution acts as catalyst to mental trauma. Decriminalizing suicide will act as a deterrent to provide people the means to get the help they need.

    Criticism of the Act

    1. In cases of dowry-related burning, attempted homicide, decriminalizing suicide will not attract the needed attention.
    2. In India, the situation of persons with mental illness have been worsened by socioeconomic and cultural factors. These include lack of access to adequate healthcare, awareness and discrimination. The bill does not direct any provisions to address these factor, nor does it offer much on prevention and early intervention.
    3. The estimate of finances required to meet the obligations under the Act (establishments of mental health sectors, providing healthcare to BPL people etc.) is not available. There isn’t clarity on how the funds will be allocated between the central and the state governments.

    Conclusion

    The Mental Healthcare Act 2017 changed the approach on mental healthcare issues, including a patient-centric health care, instead of a criminal-centric one. But there is still a lot of work required on prevention of mental illness, reintegration and rehabilitation of such people.

    The recent steps to achieve decriminalization of suicide in India are appreciable, but were long overdue. There is a urgent need to improve the mental health coverage and provide a framework to deliver essential mental health services to all those who attempted suicide. The stigma revolving around mental health needs to be reduced.