Disease, not crime

Updated April 06, 2017


INDIA’S recently passed Mental Healthcare Bill marks the government’s first national effort to tackle depression. One of the bill’s impacts is that it decriminalises suicide, a landmark move that deserves applause. It is high time that depression and a plethora of other mental illnesses are no longer viewed as non-issues, or manifestations of weakness. It is fitting, then, that the theme of World Health Day on April 7 this year is depression.

In Pakistan, attempting suicide is a criminal offence. Under Section 325 of the Pakistan Penal Code, it is punishable with either simple imprisonment extending to one year, or a fine, or both. Although suicide is not permitted in Islam, many Muslim scholars question whether punishment should also be meted out for an ‘attempt’ to commit suicide.

Instead of throwing the person who attempts suicide in jail to languish there for a year, why not send them to a rehabilitation centre and ensure compulsory treatment? Instead of levying a fine on them — especially in a society where the poor are statistically more likely to attempt suicide due to socio-economic constraints — why not invest money in their treatment and rehabilitation? A person who attempts suicide is not a criminal; he is a victim, in dire need of acknowledgement of his mental illness, a supportive environment and state policies that allow for treatment rather than punishment.

On April 9, 2016, (then justice) Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar said that there “exists no law under which persons having mental illness can be dealt with”. He was clearly referring to the fact that since the lapse of the Mental Health Ordinance, 2001 (due to the passing of the 18th Amendment, which devolved the subject of health to the provinces), Pakistan has lacked an effective legal mechanism to handle mental illness.

Almost 34pc of Pakistanis suffer from depression.

Although the Sindh and Punjab legislatures have since passed the Sindh Mental Health Ordinance, 2013, and the Punjab Mental Health Act, 2014, the issue of awareness regarding these laws and their implementation still remains blatantly worrisome. Both provinces lack a dedicated authority responsible for overseeing the implementation of these laws, and there is a lack of checks and balances on rehabilitation centres. Seven years since devolution, the state of affairs in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is even bleaker as neither has passed acts regulating mental health.

In today’s Pakistan, scores of people seem to be leading perfectly normal, happy lives. Scratch the surface, however, and what lurks beneath for many is a host of psychological issues they’re battling with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there is a deep-seated stigma attached to mental disorders in Pakistan. It is not uncommon for the word ‘psychology’ to be associated with madness; it is, therefore, a taboo subject in many households. Irrespective of what socioeconomic rung one hails from, it is typical for a person to remain quiet about their mental illness for fear of being ostracised.

Instead of trying to comprehend the cause of their children’s depression or anxiety, many Pakistani parents simply tell their offspring to seek divine help. It is imperative that our society understands that mental illness is a medical condition and should be treated as such; it should provide the same amount of medical support as it does in the case of a physical illness.

When their children break a bone, or are found to have a tumour, parents immediately take them to a doctor to ensure their speedy recovery. The same level of attention should be given to psychological disorders, instead of being quick to label a depressed person as either not being religious enough or be­­ing under the influence of black magic.

Studies reveal that almost 34 per cent of Pakistanis, and 20pc of the global population, suffer from depression, which has shown to increase the risk of heart disease, negatively affect one’s relationships, encourage drug addictions, increase suicidal thoughts, etc. Research by The National Alliance on Medical Illness in the US shows that half of all chronic mental illnesses start around the age of 14, and three-quarters by the age of 24. What this shows is that recognising signs of mental illness in adolescents is of utmost importance and can only begin when we, collectively as a society, begin to cast aside our socially inherited biases and start to take this issue more seriously.

Perhaps our government ought to take a leaf out of India’s book and start taking nation-wide steps to acknowledge, and meaningfully tackle, mental illness. It is an issue that is covertly seeping into the very fibres of the fabric that makes Pakistan, and relinquishing it to the realms of shadows only exacerbates the situation.

The writer is a human rights lawyer.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2017