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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Attempted suicide no longer a crime as India changes attitude to mental health problems

New law aims to encourage recognition of mental health issues such as depression and provide treatment rather than punishment.
More than 56 millions suffer from depression, a major contributor to suicide deaths. Getty Images
More than 56 millions suffer from depression, a major contributor to suicide deaths. Getty Images

MUMBAI // Experts have welcomed India’s move to decriminalise suicide, which they say will help troubled individuals get the help they require.

Under a mental health care bill passed unanimously by parliament last week, it is no longer a punishable offence to attempt suicide. India’s penal code previously prescribed a prison sentence of up to one year for attempting suicide.

“This is the first step to bringing a new India and understanding human behaviour, as India starts to recognise psychological disorders and mental heath problems,” said Anuja Kapur, a criminal psychologist based in New Delhi. “I’m really happy that India is no longer classifying suicide as a crime.”

She said people who tried to commit suicide were already “stressed out” and needed assistance and counselling, rather than having to deal with the fear of being put behind bars.

As in other parts of the world, domestic violence, money problems and bullying were among the most common factors behind suicide in India, she said.

Figures collated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2012 put India’s suicide rate at 20.9 per 100,000 of the population, compared with a global rate of 11.4 per 100,000.

More than 56 million Indians suffer from depression, the major contributor to suicide deaths, according to a recent WHO report, and a further 38.4 million suffer from anxiety disorders.

“The number of persons with common mental disorders globally is going up, particularly in lower-income countries, because the population is growing and more people are living to the age when depression and anxiety most commonly occurs,” the report said.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi spoke about suicide in his monthly radio broadcast last Sunday. He said Indians were afraid to talk about depression and advised people to discuss their feelings with others.

Sridevi Nayak, 27, a public relations professional in Bangalore who suffers from depression and bipolar disorder, tried to take her own life last year by overdosing on pills. Her suicide attempt was not reported to the authorities.

“I think it’s good that suicide has been decriminalised – someone who tries to commit suicide is going through a lot and is in need of help, but not punishment,” said Ms Nayak. “But it should not be taken as a sign of encouraging suicide.”

She said the new mental health bill was a step in the right direction but more needed to be done, such as providing the poor with free medication and counselling to treat depression.

“Modi is an influential person and if he says people have to address this issue, more and more people will come out and talk about it.”

Chandra Shekhar Gupta, a psychiatrist based in Jaipur, said the number of cases in which people had been jailed for attempted suicide was probably not large because most incidents were not reported to authorities.

But the old law had a created a “stigma” around attempting suicide that had discouraged people from seeking help “because they were afraid the police would come to them”, he said.

“It will take time for the public to become aware of [the new law] and for them to start to come forward,” Dr Gupta said. “It’s good for the patient and it’s good for the healthcare professionals because they can do their work without any interference from outside.”

The new legislation also clearly defines mental health care and mental illness, terms which were earlier very vague, and is aimed at giving people with mental illness better access to health care. Politicians debated the bill for five hours to finalise its details.

The bill has been praised for its rights-based approach to mental illness, and a more progressive attitude towards such conditions.

“There was a time when psychology was not well known in India and it was kind of taboo, where people in psychology were considered doctors of mad people,” said Ms Kapur.

The bill is designed to prevent patients from being discriminated against or denied treatment.

India’s health minister JP Nadda said it gave individuals the right to seek treatment for mental illness and would make it illegal to “chain a mentally ill person”, a common practice in poor rural areas where such patients have to be left alone at home while their family members go to work.

Significantly, adults will also have the right to specify in advance how they would want to be treated and who will look after them should they develop mental illness.

Shipra Dawar, the founder and chief executive of ePsyclinic, an online mental health care portal, said the passage of the bill was a landmark.

“The unneeded stigma and shame that a person who is struggling with a mental-health issue faces will now be more comfortable while reaching out,” she said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae