Suicide no longer a crime for mentally ill: Lok Sabha

28th Mar 2017
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Parliament today passed a bill that seeks to decriminalise suicide attempts by mentally ill people and provides for the right to better healthcare for people suffering from mental illness.

Image : Wikimedia Commons

The Mental Healthcare Bill also has a provision to protect and restore the property rights of mentally ill persons, Health Minister J.P. Nadda said in the Lok Sabha, just before it was passed by the House by a voice vote. All the amendments moved by the opposition members were defeated.

The Rajya Sabha had passed it in August last year with 134 official amendments. The bill provides for decriminalising suicide attempts by mentally ill persons by making it non-punishable under the Indian Penal Code. It also focuses on community-based treatment and provides for special treatment for women. The bill seeks to ensure healthcare, treatment, and rehabilitation of persons with mental illness "in a manner that does not intrude on their rights and dignity".

While replying to a debate on the bill, Nadda described it as a "patient-centric" measure, and said there was a need to empower the patients so that they could secure proper treatment. The legislation has been brought after wider consultations with the stakeholders, he said.

There were consultations at the regional level as well as at the Centre. After consultations with the stakeholders, the bill was sent to the Standing Committee and, post-amendments, it came to the Rajya Sabha.

Most of the suggestions of the Standing Committee were accepted by the government, the Health Minister said. Around 29 members participated in the discussion, and almost all of them extended support to the bill.

Stating that the 1987 Mental Act was institutionalised, the minister said that in the present bill, instead of the institution, the focus was on the community. The bill is a "progressive legislation" and intends to take care of everyone in case of any exigency, he said. Describing the bill as "historic", the Health Minister said that, with the support of all, "we can develop the mental health services". There was a need to take care of the health and hygiene of the patients, he said, adding that the right of a child with his/her mother would also be maintained.

Sterilisation would not be conducted on a person who is mentally ill, Nadda said, describing it as "an insane and inhuman act". If the need arises, he said, NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences) would be extended. Responding to concerns expressed by some members over the safety of doctors in the wake of the assault on a medico in Maharashtra recently by relatives of a patient, the Health Minister said instructions have been sent to the states that security of doctors should be ensured.

With regard to the issue raised by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor on the inclusion of a "role model", the Health Minister said there was no need to include it in the bill. However, he said that the government will definitely look at it at its own level. Earlier, members cutting across the political spectrum supported the Metal Health Care Bill.

NCP's Supriya Sule said the Standing Committee has "walked an extra mile" to incorporate the suggestions of all stakeholders. BJD's Bhartruhari Mahtab said this legislation is the only bill that received 124 amendments, with almost all being accepted by the government. Highlighting the shortage of medics and paramedics, BJP member Heena Gavit said there are only 4,500 doctors specialised in mental health when the requirement was 12,500 and 3,000 nurses per one lakh patients having mental disorders.

She rued that the country does not have any PhD seat for research in mental health. She said there should be a proper mechanism to take consent of patients for their treatment, and that they should not be treated as "experimental animals". Sule wanted to know what would happen to the child after he/she turns the prescribed age. Mahtab, along with Gavit and Sule, noted that the budget for mental healthcare is abysmally low. Sule also demanded inclusion of drug addiction and alcoholism under the category of mental disease.

Supporting the legislation, Ravindra Babu (TDP) said that this was one of the "finest legislations" in the last three years, but that it mostly focuses on schirzophrenia. K. Vishweshwar Reddy (TRS) said that while the earlier laws on mental health were "regulation-centric", the new bill is "patient-centric". Referring to Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Nash, a patient of schizophrenia, who made fundamental contributions to game theory, Reddy said that at least he had the support of his family. The movie 'A Beautiful Mind' was based on Nash's life.

"Although he had severe disabilities, he also had other capabilities," Reddy said.

The TRS MP said the bill should have taken care of property of patients suffering from mental health as "cruel relatives" may exploit them under this pretext. Supporting the legislation, Ratna Dey (TMC) demanded stringent punishment for doctors who falsify mental health cases.

P.K. Sreemathi Teacher (CPM) said that the government should ensure that a mentally ill patient, after treatment, is accepted by the society and the people. Besides that, she said, free treatment for such kinds of patients should be allowed. Bansi Lal Mahto (BJP) suggested that ayurvedic clinics should be equipped to treat mentally ill people as this traditional method has prescription for treatment of such diseases.

Jai Prakash Narain Yadav (RJD) insisted that there is a need to specify rehabilitation policy since the bill is silent about the exact modalities. The government should look at providing a conducive environment for mentally ill people after the treatment, and suitable employment opportunities should be ensured.

Dushyant Chautala (INLD) said that the level of stress is rising in the society, and it is necessary to provide medical attention to the people suffering from mental disorders and depression. He said that just like AIDS patients are give insurance cover, insurance cover with low premium should be provided to people with mental disorders as well. N.K. Premachandran (RSP) said that 5-6 percent of people have mental problems, and of them, 1-2 percent have severe mental disorders.

He lauded the move to decriminalise attempt to suicide as "progressive", and said the government should also define 'severe stress' in the Mental Health bill. Others who participated in the debate included Idris Ali (TMC), Renuka Butta (YSRC), Janardan Mishra (BJP), Badruddin Ajmal (AIUDF), Kaushlendra Kumar (JDU), Ashwini Kumar Choubey (BJP), and Asaduddin Owaisi (AIMIM).

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