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Shalini
Thursday , October 11, 2012 at 11 : 16

A plea for sanity…


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"I don't want this bill..." she said, sitting in the garden at the Women's Press Club.

"If the health ministry means it when it says that we are like any other patients, then just treat us like one. Make more dispensaries, physicians...and let us walk in and walk out with the medicines...as simple as that," she quoted.

Bhargavi Davar does not look 50. I told her again as I left the place. And she definitely did not look like a mental health patient to me either. And that's the point of it all, I thought, as I made my way back to work after the rather quick interview session. NO - you will NOT find them roaming in the streets, so don't look for it - said her unspoken resolve.

We may not realise, or to be honest, admit it, even if it stared us right into the face, but 1 in 10 of Indians have some sort of mental illness. Starting with depression, bipolar, schizophrenia...our own health minister says an estimated 1 million Indians are in need of mental health services. Other estimates would tell you that nearly 30-40 million Indians live with psychosocial disabilities.

And for such a large number, so far, we have been living with what has been called an archaic law - the mental health act of 1987 - which has often been said to 'look at' and 'treat' all mentally ill patients as 'lunatics'. Plain and simple. Confine them, chain them etc...you know!

The Erwadi fire incident of August 2001 is still fresh in the memory - 28 mentally ill patients burnt to death, because they were chained in their rooms and could not escape the building. Who was more insane? Them or the system?

The Supreme Court banned 'chaining' back then. And now, a new Mental Health Care Bill is being proposed to reform the 25 year old law. The bill promises big reforms - even proposing to decriminalising attempts to suicide and ensuring to do away with chaining patients.

But mental health activists are unhappy, saying it's cleverly warped law, boasting of reforms in a flowery language, but in essence, is just the same.

"The new mental health bill is draconian," according to Javed Abidi, a Disability Rights Activist for many years now. "It talks about giving a lot of rights to begin with but moments later, snatches it away. It's a product of the psychiatrists' lobby. It encourages springing up of mental health institutions and if you don't register, you can get away with a fine of 50,000 rupees."

The other big issue is that of legal capacity. If I have let's say heart disease, or cancer - I'm not forced to get treated without my consent or get a surgery done or put captive in a hospital. Then why so, with mental health patients? But under the new mental health bill, a person could be forced to get treatment, with no rights or choice over what kind of treatment, where to get it, surgery without consent. Yes you can have nominated representative, but a doctor could overrule that. So I have neither any choice nor any rights. The new bill also says you can 'restrain' a person...instead of chaining - so tell me how do you ultimately restrain a person? It's a gross violation of human rights."

"And don't forget that India has ratified the UN's CRPD - you can't go back on it. And if you ask my why not, then you've just questioned the entire doctrine of human rights." He rests his case.

That was passionate, I thought. But I was in for an equally passionate argument, as I made my way through the corridors of Nirman Bhawan. A pretty joint secretary treated me to a nice cup of lemon tea as I recounted the concerns over the soon-to-be-made law.

"No, the mental health bill is not draconian at all. It is pro rights, pro poor and pro the person suffering from mental illness. And nom we are definitely not chaining people or giving electric shocks without anesthesia. And for every right - there are enough checks and balances in place." Rest is just misinformation, she stated, as she finished her tea.

Clearly, there is a contention, I sighed. You can't argue from both sides.

But I write this still, for Bhargavi Davar. Or the many like her. An end user of this policy that is being argued about. A simple print on paper, but that which will decide the quality of life for millions across the country, who are striving each day - to live a sane life...or with a wrong stroke of the pen, drive them further away into darkness, confinement and the worst of all - a life without hope, to live without rights.

It is a plea for sanity. Is anyone listening?

(Tell us what you think about it...is enough being done for the mental health patients in the country? Should they suffer for the lack of rights? What would you suggest? We'll get your voices heard - leave your comments here or write to me directly at shalini12in@gmail.com)


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More about Shalini

Was the kid lost in science books at school, practically lived in the science labs at high school but that love affair diverted to mass media studies during graduation. When you have a combination like that, there plops a health journalist. And after 6 years of work now, she still feels she hasn't talked enough about YOUR health - all that you want to know & need to know on pandemics, major public health concerns (tobacco products must be banned!), new miracle medicines & treatments on the horizon to drugs that should banned here & now…And more importantly, about the people behind these stories. The real reasons, real inspirations. Constantly complains that not everything can be said in a minute & a half. Hence this blog – takes you behind the scenes, beyond the bytes. She loves to cook a good story but once off the screen, can’t cook a thing in the kitchen to save her life. Finds it equally impossible to keep a cupboard/desktop tidy. Is a known bookworm, blog-worm (if that’s a word) & a chai freak!
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