Destigmatising suicide

Suicide is principally a mental health issue. This is why we must welcome its decriminalisation

Our lawmakers need to be congratulated for setting aside their differences and acting in concert to remove one of the big colonial era blots on our statute books — Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which treated attempted suicide as a crime. Since law and order is a State subject, a mere repeal at the national level was insufficient, and States and Union Territories had also to be brought on board if the recommendations of the 210th report of the Law Commission had to be implemented. With as many as 18 States and four UTs supporting the deletion of Section 309, a law which the Delhi High Court had averred was “unworthy of society” will be consigned to history. Although widely condemned and repeatedly challenged in court, the section stayed in the statute books, even though the Supreme Court in 1994, in the Rathinam case, held Section 309 to be violative of Article 21, and even conceded the right to die by interpreting the right to life as ipso facto implying the right to not live a forced life. That, however, was set aside by a constitutional bench in 1996, which reinstated the statute and lobbed the ball back to the political class.

The sheer weight of medical evidence suggests that suicide is an illness and that the vast majority of those who commit or attempt to commit it have a diagnosable mental disorder. More often than not, these disorders have not been recognised or adequately treated, which highlights the importance of sensitising the public about the symptoms of depression and other mental disorders. Criminalising suicide is a form of censure rather than a way of helping people deal with their underlying mental health problems and the various immediate triggers that lead them to attempt to take their lives such as illness, failure, bereavement or economic ruin. As the World Health Organization has pointed out, criminalisation has the opposite effect of deterring people from attempting suicide as it discourages them from reaching out for medical help and treatment. One may add that recognising it as an illness would also persuade us to step gingerly when addressing cases relating to abetment to suicide. While abetment to suicide is a serious criminal offence, the law has been misused in many cases because of the failure to recognise suicide for what it is.

The law may be struck off, but the social problem of suicide still remains. India has a suicide rate of 15 per 1,00,000 population, and the world’s highest rate among 15- to 29-year-olds, according to the WHO. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among young Indian women, passing maternal mortality as the leading life-taker. It is time suicide was made a serious healthcare priority.

Published on December 16, 2014
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