Rupreet Kaur Dhariwal


The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 450 million individuals worldwide suffer from mental diseases. Approximately 80% of people with mental disabilities live in low-income and middle-income countries, and 4 out of 5 people with serious mental problems in these countries do not obtain appropriate care and treatment. In 2015, there were 1,33,623 suicides in India according to the National Crime Records .

This unique, age-old societal principle of not talking about mental health and brushing this topic under the carpet is applicable to people in India as well. It transcends gender, caste, religion, socio-economic status, and geographic boundaries. It is ultimate in governing people’s choices, because if people’s insecurities are publicly disclosed, it would attract judgement, rumor, and turmoil. It also limits the scope of much-needed mental health care facilities.


The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 defines mental illness as “a substantial disorder of thinking, mood, perception, orientation, or memory that grossly impairs judgment, behaviour, capacity to recognize reality or ability to meet the ordinary demands of life, mental conditions associated with the abuse of alcohol and drugs, but does not include mental retardation which is a condition of arrested or incomplete development of mind of a person, especially characterized by sub normality of intelligence.”

The Act gives no indication of family members’ role in providing care in a hospital setting. The necessity for family members to be involved in the provision of care is critical. Wherever involuntary inpatient treatment is required, a provision in the law must be enacted requiring at least one family member to attend and stay with the patient during in-patient treatment by default.

Another issue arises when attempting suicide is declared a criminal offence. The habit of using the phrases ‘died by suicide’ rather than ‘committed suicide’ is slowly gaining traction in countries such as the United States of America and Canada. The reason for this is that criminals commit crimes, and suicide is not one of them (not even attempt to commit suicide is a crime in these countries). As a result, the expressions “committed suicide” and “tried to commit suicide” are no longer suitable.


A bench of the then Chief Justice S. A. Bobde, Justice A. S. Bopanna and Justice V. Ramasubramanian, acting on an innocuous plea by an animal rights NGO requesting steps to prevent people from committing suicide by jumping into animal cages in zoos, noted the contradiction between Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”) and Section 115 of the Mental Health Act (“MHA”).  

On one hand, Section 309 of IPC states, Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall he punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year 1[or with fine, or with both].” while on the other hand, Section 115(1) of the MHA states, “Notwithstanding anything contained in Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860), “Any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code.”

The argument over the morality and legality of penalizing survivors of suicide attempts has resulted in various jurisdictions throughout the world decriminalizing the offence, which remains punishable under the 162 year old IPC. However, in a landmark judgement in 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s 1996 decision in the Gian Kaur case, stating that “The right to die, if any, is inherently consistent with the right to life as is death with life.”

Since the implementation of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017  in July 2018, mental health experts have been calling for the repeal of Section 309 of the IPC. Suicide attempts are now solely penalized as an exception, according to the MHA.

On the flipside, given the enormous number of women who still commit themselves as a result of dowry demands, some legal experts say India still requires the law. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, around 10,000 dowry deaths occurred in India last year. One-third of the offenders were found guilty. Many of these convictions, according to lawyers, were obtained after proving the abetment allegation in the suicide of a dowry victim.


The stigma associated with suicide frequently makes it difficult for someone seeking treatment to raise concerns about his/her mental health. The law primarily focuses on determining the survivor’s mens-rea (intention). However, there has been no specific mention of such a person’s mind being healed.

When so many organizations acknowledge the need of protecting and assisting those who might be suicidal, the judiciary and legislature should move forward to do their part and alter the legislation and implement this as well. The solution is not to punish the survivors, but to understand what led them to take such a drastic step.

Suicide has the potential to isolate survivors from the society and even from their family members. Mental illness (which is the reason behind majority of the suicides) still has a strong stigma, and many religions explicitly condemn suicide as a sin, thus, survivors are hesitant to recognize or disclose the circumstances of their suicide attempt/s.


Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code should be changed to reflect the types of individuals who attempt suicide. The provision should be changed to prosecute only those who attempt to avoid punishment owing to additional criminal liabilities, rather than those who do so out of sheer exasperation, depression, or living in circumstances that would make them consider suicide.

Understanding the scope of the problem would be the first step toward addressing the country’s mental health crisis. Given the socio-economic categories most affected by the crisis, the next and most important step would be to take steps to make mental healthcare more accessible, including specific therapies for vulnerable communities.

The COVID-19 outbreak has enabled health practitioners realize the importance of engaging with people and using technology to provide evaluation and treatment support. The onus now lies on us, the people, who are part of society, to stop this stigmatization and help those in need without an ounce of judgement and with utmost goodwill.

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