By Maya Palit
The long-awaited Mental Healthcare Bill of 2013 was finally passed in the Lok Sabha on Monday evening. It has a lot of ‘firsts’, including provisions to protect the property rights of people with mental illness, prohibits electro-convulsive therapy for minors (although it only limits it for adults), and insists that healthcare for mentally ill patients go beyond pills, and take an approach that encompasses welfare benefits and other forms of support. Significantly, it also decriminalises suicide attempts, as it maintains that people who’ve attempted suicide should be considered to be suffering from ‘severe stress’, and will not be tried under the Penal Code. Thankfully, the Bill has registered that punishment is the last thing these individuals need.
But perhaps the most important notion the Bill introduces is the ‘Advanced Directive’, a clause which allows for people with mental illness, who are not minors, to specify in writing how they should be treated for a mental illness, while also choosing who they want to be their nominated representative should a situation arise in which another person needs to take decisions on their behalf. What this effectively means is putting patients back in the driver’s seat, and allowing them autonomy and control over their healthcare.
Although it’s easier predicted than done, this might make it easier for women with mental illnesses attempting to counter the many prejudices and stigma that often direct the way they are treated. According to reports, relatives and the police find it much easier to lock women —- particularly those with other disabilities as well — away in institutions without their consent, and hopefully this narrative will change with the new Bill. Having said that, it’s worth taking a moment to note the ‘fine print’, which allows a relative or care-giver who doesn’t want to follow the directive to apply to the Mental Health Board to cancel or alter it. Overall, the Bill looks like a good step forward, and certainly bodes well for the changing and expanding of discourses around mental health in the country.