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Closing the care gap

Jayna Kothari

Decriminalising suicide is not enough, mental healthcare must be more accessible.

The new Mental Health Care Bill, 2013, is set to replace the Mental Health Act, 1987, and is a marked change from its predecessor. The bill adheres to the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and moves the current mental health care law from a medical to a social model based on human rights. Some of the progressive aspects of the new bill include the recognition of the legal capacity of persons with psycho-social disabilities and of advance directives, as well as the protection of the rights to equality and dignity. But the bill also has several conditions that could negate the guarantee of these rights. In this respect, the bill has been debated intensely within the disability community.

One provision of the bill that has been widely publicised is Section 124. It provides that there shall be no prosecution of any person who may attempt to commit suicide and presumes that such a person has a mental illness unless shown otherwise. What is important is that Section 124 (2) goes on to state that, in such a case, it would be the duty of the government to provide the person care, treatment and rehabilitation.

This provision seeks to nullify Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which made the attempt to suicide a criminal offence. Although Section 309 has been on the statute books, suicide has never really been treated as an offence. There have not been any serious prosecutions of persons who attempted to commit suicide and almost no convictions. Decriminalisation of this offence is still important as this recognises that persons with mental illnesses are susceptible to suicide and that there is a need to provide them care and rehabilitation instead of punishment.

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