Mental health laws need change

India’s legislative framework for mental health care has changed significantly over the years, reflecting the country’s growing acceptance of mental health and the rights of those who are struggling with mental health concerns.

| Updated: 01 January, 2024 5:01 pm IST

In today’s discourse, the relationship between legal governance and mental health takes centre stage, necessitating a close examination of complex structures that influence how people with mental health disorders are treated, their rights, and how society views them. “Navigating the Maze,” a study, explores the historical foundations and contemporary issues of India’s mental health regulations. In contrast to post-independence reforms like the Mental Health Act of 1987, which provided an emphasis on patient-centred care, the colonial-era Lunacy Act of 1912 gave priority to custody. Expert shortages and mental health facility issues continue despite advancements. Some say that the 1987 Act does not go far enough in defending rights, highlighting the need for a more sophisticated understanding to address the intricacies of mental health and guarantee well-being in contemporary Indian culture.


Decriminalizing suicide and recognizing the right to mental healthcare, the historic Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 stood in stark conformity to international human rights standards. Progressive reforms were celebrated by their emphasis on informed consent and prioritization of community-based treatment. Ongoing initiatives centre on de-stigmatization, raising public knowledge, and ongoing legislative changes to address persistent issues in India’s mental health system. India’s mental health laws have come a long way, moving from being centred on custodial treatment to being patient-centred and rights-oriented. Even with progress, there are still issues that need to be addressed, which emphasises the necessity of continuous changes and a societal acceptance of mental health. This historical background is essential to comprehend to navigate India’s dynamic mental health legislation landscape, appreciate the current situation, and imagine a more inclusive future.


India’s legislative framework for mental health care has changed significantly over the years, reflecting the country’s growing acceptance of mental health and the rights of those who are struggling with mental health concerns. Although it was criticized for emphasizing institutional care and for failing to adequately protect patients’ rights during forced admissions, the groundbreaking Mental Health Act of 1987 was a watershed in the field and established standards on admission, release, and human dignity. The 2013 changes that matched the law with voluntary admissions and community-based treatment principles demonstrated the evolution of a paradigm shift towards patient-centric care over time.


With its emphasis on the rights of those suffering from mental diseases, the historic Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 marked a tremendous advance. A comprehensive and rights-based approach to mental health treatment was established by the Act, which also introduced provisions for informed consent, authorized representatives, and advance directives. It also emphasized the importance of providing services that are both inexpensive and easily accessible.


Important characteristics include a focus on informed consent, adherence to advance directives, and empowering patients to make decisions about their treatment. In response to institutional care problems, community-based mental health services gained popularity. This is in line with the 2014 National Mental Health Policy, which placed a strong focus on community involvement and the integration of mental health services into basic healthcare. Enhancing mental health services at the community level is the goal of programs like the District Mental Health Programme. All things considered, these legal changes demonstrate a progressive movement in India’s direction toward a mental health care system that is more inclusive, and rights-focused.


As mental health has gained international recognition, campaigning for it has advanced dramatically in India. The important Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 places a strong emphasis on the rights of people with mental diseases, guaranteeing their access to mental healthcare and avoiding discrimination. Advocacy projects challenge social ideas and promote understanding through destigmatization efforts, involving mental health professionals, policy advocates, and persons with lived experiences. NGOs are essential in providing services and advocating for causes that tackle issues of stigma and ignorance. Strategies for inclusive mental health rights are informed by collaboration with international organizations. To shape a compassionate and inclusive future for mental health in India, ongoing efforts emphasize sustained investment in mental health infrastructure, education, and integration with public health initiatives.


India’s developing laws on mental health show a greater understanding of and dedication to inclusive, progressive policy. Recent advancements highlight shifts in important sectors and point to future trends. COVID-19 has sped up telepsychiatry and digital interventions, which increase accessibility and present cutting-edge mental health strategies. In line with international best practices, deficiencies in institutional care are addressed by a focus on community-based services. By adding a human rights perspective, legal frameworks are strengthened and the dignity of individuals with mental diseases is protected. Together, the legal and mental health fields fill up knowledge gaps, speed up court processes, and advance a cohesive strategy. The groundwork for a more caring, inclusive, and understanding mental health environment in India is laid by advocacy for greater public awareness.


Laws must be carefully considered because of the complex interaction between mental health and India’s criminal justice system. The necessity for a thorough and caring strategy is highlighted by the high rate of mental illness among those involved in the criminal justice system. Involuntary commitment and overcrowding in prisons are problems caused by difficulties in evaluating mental health for criminal responsibility.


Programs for diversion and therapeutic alternatives are part of the efforts to address mental health issues in the criminal justice system. Integration of mental health remains challenging, necessitating established procedures and raising awareness among law enforcement. Mental health courts and lawyer education for a more sympathetic stance are two suggested remedies. Human rights are prioritized by the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, which directs how people with mental diseases are treated in court. A comprehensive strategy is necessary to navigate the intricate interactions between the criminal justice system and mental health in India. Beyond courts, rehabilitation and community-based programs seek to break the cycle of incarceration.


The laws about mental health in India are a complicated synthesis of past influences, current developments, and advocacy initiatives. The innovative Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 places a higher priority on patient rights and dignity than laws from the colonial era. The global trend toward patient-centric paradigms is consistent with historical viewpoints. As per international human rights standards, the legislative structure now prioritizes community-based care, advance directives, and informed consent. Diversionary programs, specialized training, and a strategy that prioritizes human rights are necessary to address the convergence of the criminal justice system and mental health. A more inclusive and compassionate future is being fostered by current trends that emphasize technology integration, human rights, community-based services, collaboration, and increased public awareness. This highlights the need for collaboration between the legal and mental health fields to implement a humane, rights-based strategy.


The authors are law scholars from Kashmir University and are interested in women’s rights, good governance, judicial activism, social justice and environment conservation, respectively

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