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A humane step

A new bill gives rights to the mentally ill and could make treatment more accessible.

By: Editorial |
August 12, 2016 1:13:15 am

Mental health issues are amongst the most ill understood, both in India and worldwide. It is estimated that more that 6 to 7 per cent people in India suffer from some form of mental ailment, though the number may be higher given the stigma around such ailments. It is also believed that a vast majority of the mentally-ill remain outside the ambit of the healthcare system. Shortage of professionals, limited mental health facilities, the high costs of treatment and the stigma associated with seeking therapy make mental ailments amongst the most pressing of problems. The country took a big step in addressing these problems when the Rajya Sabha passed the The Mental Healthcare Bill 2013. Once the Lok Sabha passes the bill, this piece of legislation will replace the Mental Health Act, 1987, which did not address many concerns of people with mental ailments.

To begin with, the bill is an improvement from the 1987 act in the manner in which it defines mental illness. The Mental Health Act had a rather vague definition: Any mental disorder other than mental retardation was deemed mental illness. The new bill defines mental illness as disorder of thinking, mood, perception orientation or memory. It recognises that the illness affects a person’s behaviour, judgement or the ability to meet ordinary demands of life. The definition also includes mental conditions linked to substance abuse. Significantly, the bill makes access to quality healthcare a matter of right. Also it treats an attempt to commit suicide as a symptom of a mental health problem; it recognises that a person attempting suicide is under severe stress. In doing so, the bill decriminalises suicide. It also brings mental illness under the ambit of insurance.

There is much in the bill that could lead to humane treatment of the mentally ill. It is the first attempt to bring mental health under the purview of healthcare rights. It could provide the initial thrust in addressing the paucity of mental healthcare professionals as well as the shortage of facilities to treat people with mental ailments. Bringing the language of rights to the problem of the mentally ill is significant in another way. At times, consequences of mental disorders include homelessness, incarceration and exploitation. Many face physical and sexual abuse. But having recognised the healthcare rights of the mentally ill, the bill plays scant notice to a crucial link in their treatment: The homes and families. This is a crucial omission because much of the destitution resulting from mental illness is because of the neglect at the level of the family.

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