NEW MENTAL HEALTHCARE ACT
The Union Health Ministry on May 29 this year notified the Mental Healthcare Act 2017, replacing the three decades old Mental Health Act 1987 which had several flaws and gaps and lacked provisions to protect the identity or privacy of the individuals suffering from mental illness. A very important feature in the new Act is that it separates attempt to suicide from the Indian Penal Code. So, now IPC provisions cannot be invoked in case of an attempt to suicide as the Act has decriminalised attempt to commit suicide and will ensure that the individuals who have attempted suicide should be offered opportunities for rehabilitation from the government as opposed to being tried or punished for the attempt. Another key feature of the Act is that it has restricted the usage of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to be used only in cases of emergency, and along with muscle relaxants and anaesthesia. Further, ECT has additionally been prohibited to be used as viable therapy for minors. Sterilisation of men and women as a treatment for mental illness is also prohibited. And, the new law also prohibits the primitive method of tying mentally ill persons with chains. The Act empowers persons suffering from mental illness, thus marking a departure from the Mental Health Act 1987. The new law aims to safeguard the rights of the people with mental illness, along with access to healthcare and treatment without discrimination from the government. Additionally, insurers are now bound to make provisions for medical insurance for the treatment of mental illness on the same basis as is available for the treatment of physical ailments. Besides, the Act also fulfills India’s international obligation pursuant to the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol.
Of course, a new law, which looks certainly promising and progressive, has been framed. But, the question now is its effective implementation. The new Act empowers the government to set up a Central Mental Health Authority at national level and State Mental Health Authority in every State. It should be constituted within a period of nine months. All mental health institutes and mental health practitioners including clinical psychologists, mental health nurses and psychiatric social workers will have to be registered with this agency. The Authority can cancel the registration of any institution if it is found violating norms. Besides, a Mental Health Review Board should also be constituted to protect the rights of persons with mental illness. It is a quasi-judicial body responsible for reviewing procedure for making advance directives. It will also advise the government on the protection of mentally ill persons’ rights. It further states that the body in agreement with the state governments constitute Mental Health Review Boards in states’ districts. Now, the government should not dilly-dally in establishing these regulatory set-up in a time bound manner to effectively deal with the issue that affects a large section of our population. According to a WHO report, around 56 million Indians or 4.5 per cent of the country’s population suffer from depression and another 38 million have anxiety disorders. Almost 7.5 per cent of Indians suffer from major or minor mental disorders that require expert intervention. The government, both at Centre as well as in the States, should implement the new law in letter and spirit to remove the stigma associated with mental illness. After all, a mentally ill person also has the right to live with dignity in the country.