Mental Health Care in India: How Progressive Are We?


For a long period of time, we were obsessed with physical health and ways to improve it; and the blame cannot be put upon India as the prominence given to the physical health was not just an isolated practise in our country, but something that has been prevailing across the world. Modern medical science, in this regard, had no compassion for the mental illnesses as compared to the way research has been conducted for finding ways to cure the physical conditions and diseases. In fact, mental health care was traditionally one of the least funded, least researched realms within the sphere of medical sciences and research. It was only after the contributions of Sigmund Freud saw the light of the day, the world slowly started recognising the role played by human mind in dictating the wellness and living quality of individuals.

Today, the medical sciences do identify the need to conserve the mental well-being of people, along with physical fitness, so as to have a comprehensive management of human health and fitness. Many countries around the world have a strong legislation to ensure mental well-being through the establishment of adept mental healthcare facilities and affordable Medicare for the needy. While India had very little in terms of laws to regulate the mental healthcare system in the country, the new bill passed by the parliament brings in the ray of hope for many Indians, who are struggling with one or the other forms of mental illness. The Mental Healthcare Bill 2016, recently passed by the parliament, is one of the most progressive reforms in health care that the nation has ever seen before. With the implementation of this bill and little scepticism over its effectiveness, India will soon become a place where the mental patients are treated and cared as much as patients with physical diseases and conditions.

Is the New Law Progressive Enough?

The mental healthcare facilities in the country were in a state of abysmal funding and minimum or no support from the government. Most of the mental asylums in the country were neglected and the situation was so pathetic that India often had to take the criticisms from international agencies like World Health Organization (WHO), World Bank, United Nations etc. In this context, the recent legislation is truly a revolutionary one, given the level of changes it can bring in the way we look and care for the mentally unstable people.

The Mental Health Care Bill 2016 guarantees affordable, quality and accessible mental health care facilities for any citizen in the country who thinks that he or she needs external assistance in curing the problems of their mind.

Announcing the provisions of the new bill, Hon. Union Minister for Health JP Nadda said that this reform will ensure that no one in the country will be denied access to mental health care facilities on the basis of their gender, nativity etc.

He expressed the hope that the new law will improve the condition of the healthcare facilities in the country. It is estimated that nearly 5-6% of the Indian population requires clinical attention for their mental illness.

The new law provides the individuals with access to affordable, free and accessible facilities and from the time of its enactment, it forms a part of the right to live with dignity as promised in the fundamental rights. This means that mental health care now deserves the same attention that is given to the physical health of the individuals as well. Similarly, the law requires the Primary Health Centres (PHCs) to also consider the cases of mental illness and assist such individuals at par with cases of physical illnesses.

Similarly, the new law also requires the doctors to get the consent of the individual before taking decisions on the mode and means of treatment, given the patient is in a position to make judgments on what is best for him. The law also prohibits discriminatory practices against rehabilitated individuals, in any form and makes it a punishable offence with a jail term and fine or both.

The law also regulates the use of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) on individuals with sizeable restrictions. Another important aspect of the law is that it brings in the revolutionary reform whereby the individual can appoint a caretaker in advance, who in turn can coordinate with the medical board on behalf of the patient in making decisions. This would ensure that any individual can appoint someone whom he or she trusts and in the event of mental illness and inability to make sound decisions, the caretaker can act on behalf of the patient. The law also decriminalizes the suicide by detaching it from the purview of Indian Penal Code (IPC).

It could be undoubtedly said that this law is one of the most progressive reforms that India has witnessed very recently.

Given the pathetic condition of the mental health care in the country, this law will hopefully improve the situation. One of the path-breaking reforms this law has brought in is the decriminalization of the suicide attempts. It is a well-known fact that people who attempt for suicide need medical assistance and not punishment. With all the provisions that it has, thus, this law will reform the way society looks at the people who need special attention and care.

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