A Mentally Sound Future; The Mental Healthcare Bill

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The Mental Healthcare Bill has been hailed a ‘landmark’ bill in India. We take a look at how, and why, the Mental Health Bill came to be and celebrate this progressive bill along with its positive impact on Indian society.

Tackling the issue of mental healthcare, the Indian govt. passed the Mental Healthcare Bill in May 2017. The Bill was desperately needed in India, a nation where nearly 6.5% of the citizens suffers from mental illness, a figure expected to grow up to 20% by 2020.

Currently, more than 58 million Indians suffer from depression. A number that is more than twice the combined population of Australia and New Zealand. According the the Global Burden of Disease Study, depression was India’s tenth-biggest cause of early death in 2015. Research in mental healthcare indicates that nearly 2.5 million people have schizophrenia, roughly 8.8 million have bipolar affective disorder, nearly 36.8 million have anxiety disorders and approximately 13.4 million have alcohol dependence. These number are scary, but when these numbers are studied further, the findings are downright frightening.

As a nation, India witnesses 15 suicides every 60 minutes. Studies of children and adolescents have demonstrated a high prevalence of mental issues including anxiety disorders, major depression, conduct disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Since 2014, over 26,000 students have killed themselves, a figure which roughly translates to a student suicide each hour and is one of the world’s highest suicide rate among the youth. Nearly 33% of elderly people in primary care suffer because of mental disorders, with depression and dementia being the more predominant problems.

Hoping to tackle the abysmal figures in this broken-down mental healthcare environment, the Indian govt. passed the Mental Healthcare Bill. Described as ‘An Act to provide for mental healthcare and services for persons with mental illness and to protect, promote and fulfill the rights of such persons during delivery of mental healthcare and services’, the Mental Healthcare Bill seeks to fix the problems in this sector of healthcare delivery. A Bill which was applauded upon presentation in the parliament, the issue of mental healthcare is one recognized by the entire political spectrum and finally, the constitution.

The new bill supersedes the previous Mental Health Act which was passed in 1987 and creates a ‘right to access mental healthcare’. This is fascinating as the constitution does not recognize a right to ‘physical healthcare’.

The bill will also provide provisions to setup and regulate the mental health institutions related to this sector. A salient feature of the new bill has been decriminalizing the ‘Attempt to Commit Suicide’. The bill also fulfills India’s international obligation pursuant to the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The bill will also empower individuals suffering from mental illness by setting up an agency of people with mental illness who will be allowed to make decision regarding their health, provided they have appropriate knowledge to do so.

However, where the bill does have maximum impact on public healthcare is by tackling the stigma associated with mental illness. Mental Illness in India is very close to being a taboo subject, and inadequate conversation in this space has lead to the topic being neglected. With this move, the government has not only put the spotlight on the subject of mental healthcare, but has also prompted the immediate and effective development of this sector.

National workshops, such as the one-day workshop held at Government Medical College, Srinagar, go a long way in addressing the issues on this sector. The more the conversation and activity in this sector, the further this space will develop. The act has paved a way for augmenting the mental healthcare ecosystem and has also laid out the framework for a ‘mentally sound’ India. Additionally, initiatives from other sectors will only further address the stigma of mental healthcare. For eg, schools in New Delhi aim to add a ‘happiness curriculum’ from the oncoming academic session to promote, the much needed, mental welfare for the students of the capital city.

Yes, there are plenty of challenges which the bill faces; primarily those associated with infrastructure and the amount of working professionals in the field. Nevertheless, the true victory of the bill is in recognizing mental health as a relevant healthcare marker; and creating a legal framework pertaining to accessing mental healthcare for all members of society.

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