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Mental Health and Suicide Laws: A Way Forward

After the inclusion of Covid-19 in the world, suicide attempts and mental health problems have been rising at an alarming rate. The rate of suicide attempt cases increased drastically in a short period is a matter of dire concern. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of overall deaths worldwide. The age group which is more prone to commit suicide is said to be between 15-39. With the expansion of the busy lifestyle of the people and lack of awareness about the need for mental healthcare, the situation is becoming worse day by day.

The situation becomes even worse when mental health issues are considered taboo, about which people refrain from talking. Especially in India, society usually takes mental problems for granted without even realizing the gravity of the issue. Due to the ignorance of the fact that an individual is suffering from a mental health problem, he/she is not able to get proper treatment. As the problem increases, the person could not be able to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, as a result, it leads the person to the thought of committing suicide.

Why suicide?

There are various reasons due to which a person takes such an extreme step of committing suicide, for instance; psychiatric disorder, substance abuse, genetics, family and social situation, etc.

Disorders can be of various types such as mental disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, and eating disorder.

There are many instances where people were found to be in the influence of alcohol or various other drugs like marijuana, cocaine before committing suicide.

Various researches show that people with a history of suicide in their families are more inclined to commit suicide.

Familial and social pressure on an individual may also lead him to commit suicide. The pressure can be of any type, for instance; Pressure related to the economical situation, pressure of frequent and trivial fights among family members, etc.

It has been documented that around 800,000 people lose their lives each year by committing suicide all over the world. When it comes to India, the approximate number of suicides each year is 1,35,000, which constitutes about 17 percent of the overall suicides committed in the world.

Is it happening due to the lack of awareness or is there any problem with the proper implementation of the legislation?

As far as legislation is concerned, Section 309 of IPC deals with the attempt to commit suicide, it reads:
Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.

So, is it justified to penalize such a sensitive act as attempt to suicide? Before diving into the depth of this question first, take a view of the development and the history of this Section and try to find out the answer to the said question.

In 1971, the 42nd Law Commission in its report recommended the repeal of this Section, and the IPC (Amendment) Act, 1978 even passed by Rajya Sabha but before it could proceed any further, the bill was elapsed because the parliament got dissolved.

In Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, 1996, the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of Section 309 of IPC. In the said case, it has been argued that Section 309 of IPC is in direct conflict with Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The main contention is that if a person possesses the "Right to Life" then he/she should also have the liberty to terminate his/her own life. However, this premise was not taken into consideration and hence, struck down.

In 2008, the 210th Law Commission in its Report found Section 309 of IPC inhuman. It further states that the attempt to suicide needed treatment and care, not punishment. Inflicting punishment on a person who is already facing agony is unfair.

Then, in 2017, the Mental Healthcare Act came into existence, which made Section 309 of IPC partially void. Section 115 (1) of Mental Healthcare Act states:
Notwithstanding anything contained in Section 309 of IPC, any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished in the said code.

But, after the recommendations of the law commission and introduction of MHCA, why is Section 309 of IPC still in existence? The reason is that the attempt to commit suicide is not just limited to the victim of poor mental health. There is also another side of all these things. There are instances where people declare strikes to justify their demands and threaten to kill themselves if their demands are not fulfilled. If a person commits an act like this, then it is going to be difficult for that person to prove that he/she is suffering from any mental health issue and that's exactly where Section 309 of IPC will play its role. So, the relevance of this Section is still there, we just have to see it from a different point of view.

How far we have reached in tackling suicide cases?

Now, we have all these proper arrangements to tackle attempt to suicide cases then why our country is one of the leading countries where the attempt to suicide cases are frequent? The problem might be with the proper implementation of all these laws and recommendations related to the attempt to suicide and mental health.

Various countries are adopting various kinds of innovative suicide prevention methods so that there would be some kind of resistance in cases of suicide attempts, for instance;

Scandinavian countries are cutting the working days for the employees, working in their country so that they can invest their time on physical and mental productivity and do their work more efficiently. Japan has recently appointed a Loneliness Minister in its cabinet to check and cut the suicide rates in the country.

The onus is now on us to work collectively and effectively to take care of the mental health of society in a better way. There are various ways by which we can make people aware of mental healthcare by organizing various awareness camps at a very basic and ground level so that every section of society can get the benefit of these camps.

For spreading awareness, we can also cooperate with various governmental authorities and NGOs that are working in the area of mental health and suicide prevention. We can also share some unique ideas, which can cause a positive impact on the overall situation of the mental health of the country, with the government. By adopting all the said measures, we can at least create some kind of resistance in the suicide cases and lead our society to a better world.

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