A crucial bill seeking to decriminalise suicide and provide the right to better healthcare for people suffering from mental illness found all-round support in the Lok Sabha on March 24.


The Mental Healthcare Bill, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha with 134 official amendments in August last year, was moved for consideration and passage by Health Minister J P Nadda who said it was introduced in the Lower House after wide-ranging consultations with experts, academia and others.It found support from the opposition, though the debate on it remained inconclusive.


"The bill empowers the patients for mental healthcare. It gives them the right so that he/she is not denied (treatment) or discriminated against. The focus is on community mental healthcare...it is a rights-based bill," Nadda said.


The measure provides that a person who attempts suicide shall be presumed to be suffering from mental illness at that time and will not be punished under the Indian Penal Code.


It also seeks to protect and promote the right of persons with mental illness during the delivery of healthcare in institutions and the community.


A unique feature of the bill is that it allows adults to make an advance directive on how they wish to be treated in case they suffer from mental illness in future. Such a person can also choose a nominative representative who would take care of him or her, the Minister said.


It clearly defines mental illness and mental healthcare, he said, adding that the earlier definition was vague.


There are also provisions under which a person cannot be sterilised just because he or she has a mental health condition. "As per this law, we cannot separate a child for three years... Also, one cannot chain a mentally-ill person," the Minister said.


"We tried to see that the patient is protected and no coercive methodology is adopted. Individuals who will not adhere to it will be liable to penalty and imprisonment. This is a very progressive bill," he said.


The Bill focuses on community-based treatment. Special provisions for women and children have also been provided for. Among the various objectives, it provides for ensuring healthcare, treatment and rehabilitation of persons with mental illness "in a manner that does not intrude on their rights and dignity."


India is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international human rights treaty of the United Nations. Around 6-7 per cent of India's population suffers from some kind of mental illnesses, while 1-2 percent suffers from an acute mental disease. 


Participating in the discussion on the bill, Congress member Shashi Tharoor said it was first brought in 2013 by then Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, and it has taken so long for this government to bring it back.


Taking a dig at the government, he said it has brought several bills like those relating to Aadhar, FDI and insurance, which were drafted and prepared by the erstwhile UPA government.


"My party is with him (Nadda) on this...If we want a modern and progressive society, we need this law," he said, adding people suffering from any mental disorder carry the stigma that "ye toh pagal hai (he/she is mad)".


Citing certain figures and reports, Tharoor said women and children in mental hospitals were treated worse than animals. About 50 million people were suffering from such problems in the country.


If someone visits a psychologist or a psychiatrist, instead of helping the person, people start distancing themselves from him or her, Tharoor said.


Explaining the grave situation, he said many people who are suffering from these problems live in a denial mode and "they are unwilling to seek help".


He said a famous Bollywood actress has talked about the way she fought with depression and added that such persons can become a role model for the society. Talking about suicides, he said according to the National Crime Records Bureau's 2014 report, 15 suicides happen every hour.


"Suicide is an issue," he said, adding there are so many things attached to this and one is unemployment. "There are no jobs in our economy today despite assurances from the Prime Minister," he said.


Criticising the education system, Tharoor said there are no counsellors, and there is a tremendous pressure on children that "pariksha pass karo (clear the exams)".


There is a need to make it mandatory for every educational institution to have counsellors and "this is the need of the hour," he said.


Citing the example of Kota in Rajasthan where students go for coaching classes, he said every month there is one suicide. "Do we realise the kind of pressure we are putting on our children," he said, adding the law enforcement agencies and the media should be sensitised about the issue.


"We have to change the laws as well as the mindsets...this bill must be accompanied by better way of implementation of this law. Police should be trained that suicide is a cry for help. What we need is to ensure that people get help and assurance and back in happy and productive life," he added.


He also said that the number of psychiatrists is very less in the country. There is only one for five lakh people.


"There are a number of good things in the bill, but there are also a number of things out....Psychotherapists, psychoanalysts are not included in the bill. I request you to add these categories," he added. Tharoor said there is a crying need for mental health professionals in the military also and said, "I hope the government allocated sufficient resources for this bill." 


Apparently referring to yesterday's incident of a Shiv Sena MP assaulting an Air India staffer, he said when "we talk about such persons", and there are also incidents where an airline staffer has misbehaved with mentally ill people.


Heena Gavit (BJP) welcomed the bill when the Chair took up the next item on the agenda. The debate would continue next week.