India gets it first mental health policy

Timed to coincide with the World Mental Health Day, the policy aims to provide universal access to mental healthcare, especially to those living in poverty

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Friday 10 October 2014


The Union health ministry on Friday unveiled India’s first national mental health policy, which was accompanied by a mental health action plan for next one year. The aim is to provide access to good quality treatment to mentally ill people, especially those living in poverty.
While introducing the new policy, timed to coincide with the World Mental Health Day, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan said that universal access to mental health care is a specific goal of the government.  It would find substantial articulation in the evolving National Health Policy and National Health Assurance Mission (NHAM), he said.

He said the government will give emphasis on participatory, rights-based, holistic approach to mental healthcare.

The policy gives priority to dealing with the stigma associated with mental illness, focusing on vulnerable population especially the poor and homeless people who cannot afford psychiatric treatment.

The policy aims to enhance awareness and understanding about mental health and strengthening leadership in the mental health sector at all levels. It will have a pro-poor orientation because only the creamy layer of society presently has access to mental healthcare in India, the minister said.

Mental healthcare bill promised in one year

The “Mental Health Action Plan 365” spells out the specific roles to be played by all stake holders, including Central government, state governments, local bodies and civil society organisations over the next year.

The government has set for itself certain targets: enacting the Mental Health Care Bill and implementing the national and district mental health programmes. Other important tasks at hand include integration of mental health education and services in general health programmes, setting up a mechanism for periodic and regular review of mental health action points and also to increase resource allocation for mental health programmes, plans and action.

“We will move the Mental Health Bill in Parliament; the earlier effort made in 1987 ran aground due to a number of defects. This time a policy group worked dedicatedly to develop its recommendations. I thank them for recognising that the vast majority of the mentally ill people in India live in the villages and there is literally no care available for them,” the minister said.

Along with policy and action plan, two booklets as guidelines for general practices for doctors were also released.

Where previous laws failed

Harsh Vardhan pointed out that earlier laws governing the mentally ill—the Indian Lunatic Asylum Act of 1858 and Indian Lunacy Act of 1912 ignored the human rights aspect and were concerned only with custodial issues. After Independence it took 31 years for India to attempt to frame the first legislation, which led to the drafting of the Mental Health Act of 1987. But this legislation was not implemented because of its many defects.

According to WHO projections, about 20 per cent of India’s population would suffer from some form of mental illness by 2020. The country has only about 3,500 psychiatrists. Therefore, the government is confronted with the problem of lowering this gap significantly over the next decade, the health minister noted.

“The bi-directional relationship of mental ill health and poverty is evident in many reports, including the World Disability Report, 2010, that places persons with mental disabilities at the bottom of the pyramid. This alerts us to what could become a health crisis with damaging consequences for society,” said Harsh Vardhan.

The Mental Health Care Bill, 2012

Comprehensive mental health action plan 2013–2020

Mental Health Atlas 2011

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