It first began with the British in India. The British invented The Indian Lunacy Act, 1912. The act in those days was rigid with the terms “lunatics” which they meant were the people who were to be “locked” away in asylums.
This act mainly focused on removing the mentally ill people from society and locking them away, instead of treating them or curing them. This act was naturally considered as orthodox and in 1950 the Indian Psychiatric Society came together to draft a bill against it.
Until 2017, a failed attempt to suicide was a punishable offense under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. What is considered an attempt to suicide? Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does actions in order towards the commission of such an offense was punished with simple imprisonment for one year or fine or both.
The section was however was subject to debate in 1996 in the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab when it was debated that Section 309 of IPC violated Article 21 of the Indian Constitution wherein every individual has a right to live. It was further contended in the case that when a person has the right to live, so the person also has the right to terminate his/her life. However, these contentions were completely struck down and Section 309 of the IPC was not proven constitutionally invalid.
In the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India the contrary to the previous case contended. It was contended that under Article 21 only the right to life is guaranteed and thus right to die cannot be accepted as a valid contention. It was further said that it cannot be proved even with the help of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
In this case, it was contended that the right to life is a natural right, which is given to the citizens of India, whereas the right to terminate life is thus incompatible and inconsistent with the principles of Article 21. There are a myriad of questions related to Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code as it comes under the category of crimes defined under Chapter XVI, which the chapter related to the offenses related to harming the human body. Mental health was still stigmatized in the society, as a person who was suffering from mental illness attempted suicide would be penalized.
Voices have been raised against such stringent and orthodox laws for a long time. It wasn’t until 1993, when the Mental Health Act, 1987 finally came into force. This was the first step towards safeguarding the mental ill people. This act established the foundations for protecting the people facing mental problems. However, this act wasn’t without flaws and not only did it not take steps to bring awareness amongst people but it also put the mental health in the same category as the primary health care.
In the year 2013, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad introduced the Mental Healthcare Bill, 2016 in the Rajya Sabha. This was the first time that the political discourse around suicide was trying to help and understand mental illness.
For the first time, this bill proposed to de-criminalize attempt to suicide. This bill also protected the rights of the mentally ill people and allowed them to have a say in their treatments. This bill was then reintroduced by the NDA led Lok Sabha in the year 2016. And after several amendments, this bill was passed in the year 2017.
The Mental Healthcare Act was finally passed in the year 2017 and came into effect in May 2018. This act de-criminalized attempt to suicide in India as well as included WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines, which helps in categorizing mental health.
This act-included provisions like “advanced directives” which give the right to the mentally ill person to decide his course of treatment and also to appoint someone as his/her representative. ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) was restricted and completely banned to use on minors. The Indian Society finally started de-stigmatizing mental illness.
Decriminalizing attempt to suicide is one side of the story in the big picture. The small picture is the stigma, which has been instilled in us. We have been taught since our childhood how to not accept mental health and how mental illness is considered as a taboo.
Thus, making laws and implementing them can only create awareness and protect one’s rights. But the stigma around mental health isn’t just social it is deeply instilled and we need to remove that.
We need to normalize mental health just as public health so the people suffering from mental illness can openly talk about it and you can help them come out of it. Until we push our families and ourselves for a change there won’t be change visible in the society. And thus, begin with the change in yourself.
The Indian Penal Code, 1860
Gian Kaur v State of Punjab, 2 Supreme Court Cases 648, (Supreme Court: 1996)
The Indian Constitution, 1950
P. Rathinam v. Union of India, 3 SCC 394, (Supreme Court:1994)