The Mental Healthcare Bill 2016, passed by the Lok Sabha is a landmark legislation that will finally bring dignity to the way mental healthcare is perceived in the country. For a nation, where 13.7 per cent of the population is afflicted by mental diseases, this step will go a long way in ensuring timely help to those who are in dire need. The bill has also decriminalized suicide with the survivors of attempted suicide no longer having to undergo prosecution as they will now be presumed to have severe stress.

The legislation which was earlier passed by the Rajya Sabha in August 2016 ensures the right of every person to have access to mental health care and treatment from mental health services run or funded by the government. It also assures free treatment for those who are homeless or poor even if they do not possess a Below Poverty Line card.

This is a significant move as according to the National Mental Health Survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), 10.6 per cent of those with mental disorders need immediate interventions. But the social stigma attached with mental disorders and the financial burden the diseases bring with it means that the patients are often forced to live in seclusion and are subjected to untold miseries. Various surveys have found that over 90 per cent of those within mental illness never receive a diagnosis.

The situation is especially worse in rural areas where severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are associated with negative folklore and the patients are shunned by society. In urban areas, the problem is more pronounced when it comes to common mental disorders like depression and anxiety as they are yet to be acknowledged as diseases and those suffering from it have no recourse to proper treatment.

The Mental Healthcare Bill, if implemented properly will help address this issue of accessibility to treatment to a great extent. In addition to making it a basic right, it has also allowed adults to make an advance directive on how they wish to be treated in case they suffer from mental illness in future and also nominate a caregiver. It has made provisions to curtail and punish inhuman treatment or imprisonment of a person suffering from mental illness. The bill has put an end to the deplorable treatment that many are subjected to and restored their rights to live in dignity.

In a recent study submitted to the Union Health Ministry, it was found that despite such a huge percentage of population suffering from mental disorders in the country, there are huge gaps in treatment. A 2011 survey by the WHO Mental Health Atlas also stated the same. According to the survey, India has only 0.301 psychiatrists per 100,000 people and the government’s expenditure on mental health was only 0.06 per cent of the total health budget. Another survey by WHO had stated that 22 per cent of individuals have chances of developing one or more mental or behavioural disorders in their lifetime in India.  

The situation demands India to do a lot more in the field of mental healthcare. There is an urgent need to streamline the services and bring more professionals on board from varying fields like medicine, social sciences and judiciary to develop a more holistic approach to treat those suffering from mental illness. Rehabilitation of patients by providing them vocational training is an aspect that should be seriously looked into to achieve the goal of empowerment.