This article has been authored by Tamanna Gupta, a fourth-year student at RGNUL, Punjab.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has had several adverse negative impacts on the mental health of people, as can be ascertained from the sudden rise in suicides during the lockdown. Several reports from various states in India are pointing towards an alarming trend of rise of suicides throughout the country due to the pandemic. Based on Police Data, Kolkata, West Bengal has witnessed a 100% increase in number of people committing suicide, after the lockdown was imposed nationwide. According to the records, between the months of April-June 2020, at least 113 cases of suicide were reported, more than twice the figure for cases in 2019. A Senior Police Officer attributed such cases to “helplessness and uncertainty”, due to the prevailing lockdown conditions. This is not a standalone case, as dramatic spikes in the number of cases of suicides are being reported from various parts of India. This article aims to analyze the current response of various branches of government, the current framework and statutes in place, and further measures that can be taken to ensure reduction in the number of suicides in the country.
Status Quo: Alarming Rise in Suicide Cases
It has been reported that suicide emerged as the leading reason for more than 300 “non-COVID deaths”, that occurred in India. The compilation prepared by Technologist Thejesh GN, Activist Kanika Sharma and Assistant Professor at JGLS, Mr Aman, stated that 338 cases of suicide occurred between March 19-May 2, 2020, and could be directly or indirectly attributed to the lockdown instituted by the Government as a part of its COVID-19 response. Moreover, the report revealed that over 80 people committed suicide due to factors such as isolation, loneliness, and the fear of contracting the virus, which points out to the deterioration of their mental health, a factor that led to their death by suicide.
Another report based on investigations by Ludhiana Police stated that factors such as depression, domestic violence, financial constraints, & reduced access to mental health facilities were responsible for several deaths by suicide during COVID-19. A majority of suicides were attributed to depression due to loss of jobs and domestic violence was the second major cause for suicides during the lockdown. It has been rightly stated by Dr. Nidhi Aggarwal, working at Christian Medical College & Hospital, that, “The pandemic-induced lockdown was difficult for people from all walks of life, but especially for those who lost their sources of income. The lockdown affected people from all age groups, whether psychologically, emotionally, physically or financially”. Thus, there emerges a pressing need for stringent redressal mechanisms to cope with the rise in number of suicide cases attributed to the lockdown.
Interventions by the State: A Failed Attempt
Recently, in a heartbreaking incident, a Class 10 student of Malappuram district, Kerala, committed suicide due to her inability to attend online classes instituted after the lockdown due to not having a smartphone. In the case of Sreelekhmi S. v State of Kerala (2020), The Kerala High Court stated that the incident was “unfortunate & painful”. The unfortunate death was politicized in a tussle between political parties over the issue of exorbitant fees being charged by schools even during the lockdown, adding to the financial woes of economically weaker families. The Kerala Government stepped into action after over 66 cases of student suicides were reported in Kerala during the lockdown.
Several initiatives have been launched by the Government, such as ‘Chiri’ (Smile), a tele-counseling helpline scheme by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and a psychosocial support programe, Ottakkalla, Oppam Undu’ (You are not alone, we are with you). The concerted efforts have resulted in over one lakh phone calls being made to various students by school counselors from various schools. According to the Kerala government’s dashboard, over 180 cases (as of July 18) have been reported for intervention by counsellors as also ASHA and anganwadi workers. 14,518 children have been given counseling, with 10 students reporting suicidal behavior. However, the lockdown’s isolation surpasses the efforts made by various governments, with suicides still happening at a worrying pace.
Framework Governing Suicide in India and Attempts at Decriminalization
The recently instituted Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 lays down various rights that are given to persons with mental illnesses. Section 19(1) of the Act states that every person suffering from mental illness has the right to live as a part of the society, and not be segregated from society. Section 20(1) of the Act states that every person suffering from mental illness has the right to live with dignity, with Sub-Clause (2) further stating that such persons must be protected from cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment in any facility for recuperation. Section 23(1) of the Act further states that persons suffering from mental illnesses have the right to confidentiality. Despite the existence of such rights, Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (1860) criminalizes the attempt to commit suicide.
Article 21 of the Constitution of India states that everyone has the “Right to Life”, however, this does not include the “Right to Die”. However, attempts have been made towards decriminalizing suicides. The Delhi High Court, in the landmark judgment of State v Sanjay Kumar Bhatia (1985) famously stated, “The continuance of Section 309 IPC is an anachronism unworthy of a human society like ours”. In the Supreme Court case of P Rathinam v Union of India (1994), the Court stated that criminalizing suicide is a “double punishment” for sufferers, and the Court also stated that persons should not be convicted and punished for their attempt to commit suicide. Furthermore, the 210th Report of the Law Commission of India recommended the decriminalization of suicide. However, Section 309 IPC remains a punishable offence in the present context.
The lockdown has had adverse effects on the mental health of people from all walks of life, and of all age groups, whether it be the students, or the elderly. While several states such as Kerala have taken measures to address the issue, several cases of suicide are still being witnessed due to factors such as loss of jobs, depression, isolation, loneliness, amongst other factors. Despite the existence of a comprehensive Mental Healthcare Framework that lays down various rights of the mentally ill, lack of awareness and implementation impedes the progress made under the act. There is a pressing need to ensure the existence of a strong inter-connected framework that ensures the mental well-being of all, which shall remain a cause of concern for times to come.