The Journey towards the Decriminalisation of Suicide in India

Author: Harshita Kothari, ICFAI Law School, Hyderbad


Did you have any idea about how mental illness is seen in India? And how a suicide attempt could land you in jail? Imagine being depressed, mentally ill and your attempt of ending your life will land you in jail instead of a care facility. You want to talk about your mental health to someone in India made people think of you as crazy, someone to be ashamed of. This is the reality of our country by making sure that shame is attached to your family because you want to talk to a doctor and get better. But in case of suicide attempt, we are lucky now since the Mental Healthcare Bill decriminalised suicide in 2018. This fight to state very simple fact, "mental health is as important as physical health" to the forefront of political discourse has been very long.

Let's take look at the history of mental health laws and how Decriminalisation of suicide came to be.

Around the world, a life is lost as a result of suicide every 40 seconds. As indicated by a WHO report, more than 56 million Indians experience the ill effects of depression – a significant supporter of suicide deaths and a further 38.4 million experience the ill effects of anxiety disorders. As indicated by a review, 93% of suicide attempters were seen as mentally sick at the hour of the commission of suicide attempt [1]. In India, Sec 309 IPC has stayed immaculate and not altered for as far back as 155 years, hence justifying a relook and repeal [2]. The Delhi High Court held that Sec 309 IPC as "anachronism unworthy of society"(1985). The Supreme Court of India, 1994 called it "irrational and cruel and hence void" which was then overruled by a board of judges [3].

The Indian Lunacy Act, 1912

This is pretty evident from the year mentioned above that this act was created when India was a British colony. The act, assuming the sentiments of the era, focused on the concept of "lunatics" to be "locked away" in asylums. It was adamant more on removing the mentally ill from society as it was evil eating them away instead of their treating it or cures. Naturally, this mindset changed and required a change in its laws and 1950, members of the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) voiced their opinion and drafted a bill to replace it.

Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code

The point when India's constitution came into effect, mental health in the country was still administered by the Lunacy Act of 1912. Section 309 of the IPC which then introduced further stigmatised India's kin and the society with mental illness by penalising/punishing any individual who attempted suicide with detainment term of as long as a year, or fines, or both. This law led to disengagement and discrimination of people with mental illnesses as well as their family. In 1971, and again in 2008, the Law Commission of India recommended the erasure of Section 309, yet the talk around suicide stayed commanded my pity rather than comprehension and importance of mental illness.

Mental Health Act, 1987

After IPS presented their mental health bill to the administration, it took quite a long while for the bill to be passed in 1987, and it wasn't until 1993 that the Mental Health Act finally came into force. The act established the framework for setting up Central and State mental health, care specialists, care authorities and services in the country, as well as to safeguard the rights of these individuals. The act, be that as it may, wasn't without imperfections. This act failed to sort psychological well-being care on a similar level as essential medicinal services and it also took no steps to spread awareness about mental illness in society.

Mental Healthcare Bill (MHC), 2016

The MHC Bill was first presented in the Rajya Sabha in 2013 by the then Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. The bill denoted a critical departure from past enactment because, for the first time, political discourse around suicide wandered into understanding psychological instability and the rights of people with dysfunctional behaviours. The bill, above all else, decriminalized suicide attempts. It also preserved the rights and poise of mentally ill individuals by permitting them a say in their treatment and guiding the legislature to give them access to psychological well-being care administrations. After the UPA-led Lok Sabha dissolved, the MHC Bill was reintroduced by the NDA-led Lok Sabha in 2016 with several changes, amendments and then was passed in 2017. What's more, this progression has been accepted to be the initial step to understanding human conduct better. Also, the individual endeavouring such an outrageous advance ought not to be treated as a wrongdoer, since they are already upset and are in mental trauma.

The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017

The Act which was reintroduced was come to be known as The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 which came into effect in May 2018. This brings a ray of hope and trust in individuals living with psychological illness. It characterizes "mental illness" as a disorder of reasoning or memory that disables judgment. Including the decriminalization of suicide attempts, it also included the guidelines provided by WHO in the categorisation of mental illnesses.

One of the significant provision in the act was "advanced directives", which permitted people with mental illnesses to choose the course of their treatment and select somebody to be their agent. It likewise confined the utilization of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), and prohibited its use on minors, at last acquainting measures with tackle stigma in Indian culture. Be that as it may, the BJP government's amendments to the MHC bill have prompted some vast loopholes within the Act. The Act likewise neglects to incorporate psychotherapists and counsellors within the domain of mental health professionals and experts, while Ayurvedic and homoeopathic specialists make the cut.


Decriminalising is only one stage towards reducing the devastating confinement felt by individuals with psychological illnesses in our country. Passing laws is certainly something while at the same time executing them is another. The shame around psychological illnesses isn't simply social, it is incorporated with our very frameworks of politics and healthcare. Until we push for a change in each circle, there's still work to do in handling the plague of suicide in India.

There is no awareness concerning the laws related to suicide and most of them are against treating mental illness like physical illness. Individuals are not ready to look for legitimate assistance when their thoughts turn suicidal. It very well may be presumed that there are inner conflict and obliviousness in the general public to suicide. Taking everything into account, considerably following 155 years of implementation of Sec 309 IPC, awareness is very poor. Out of sight of these discoveries, it is sensible to demand that public health policymakers consider arranging projects to increase awareness regarding Sec 115 of MHCA. This sec. will likewise fail if steps are not taken to spread the awareness Moreover, there is a requirement for follow-up studies to know the result in terms of change in the suicide rate, looking for help, psychiatry referrals, and epidemiological information. No one but time can tell the drawn-out impact of the implementation of this Act.

[1] Criminal Prosecution of Suicide Attempt Survivors in Ghana by Mensah Adinkrah. DOI: 10.1177/0306624X12456986

[2] (De-) criminalization of attempted suicide in India: A review. Authors: Ranjan R, Kumar S, Pattanayak RD, Dhawan A, Sagar R.

[3] Gian Kaur vs. the State of Punjab, AIR 1996 SC 946.

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