Decriminalising suicides | Courts haven’t understood scientific perspective but only legal, says SC Judge

Mental Healthcare Act has come up with some kind of a solution, says Justice V. Ramasubramanian

September 11, 2022 04:57 am | Updated February 17, 2023 07:36 am IST - Chennai:

Justice V. Ramasubramanian, SC judge presenting an award to Jayendra Panchapakesan and Sudha Panchapakesan in recognition of support and contribution to Sneha on September 10, 2022.

Justice V. Ramasubramanian, SC judge presenting an award to Jayendra Panchapakesan and Sudha Panchapakesan in recognition of support and contribution to Sneha on September 10, 2022. | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

Responding to an appeal to repeal Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that criminalises attempt to commit suicide, Justice V. Ramasubramanian of the Supreme Court of India, said the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, has come up with some kind of a solution but wondered if it has provided a solution in entirety.

Section 115 of the Act says that notwithstanding anything contained in Section 309 of IPC, 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, he said. “This can be taken, to some extent, as having repealed Section 309 of IPC. Though in the text, it still remains,” he said, addressing the World Suicide Prevention Day programme organised by Sneha, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in the area of suicide prevention, on Saturday.

He mentioned earlier that Section 309 of the IPC said an attempt to commit suicide was punishable with imprisonment, which may extend to one year or with fine or with both.

He elaborated on a Supreme Court judgment in 1994 that struck down Section 309 as unconstitutional, a judgment that overruled it in 1996 and recommendations of various Law Commissions to repeal and not to repeal the provision. “Courts, to some extent, are vacillating between one end and the other end because we have not understood the problem from a scientific perspective but we have analysed it only from a legal perspective,” he said.

Citing a report of United for Global Mental Health, he said criminalisation of suicide has four negative impacts on the society — it leads to suppression of data, results in not treating suicide as a public health issue, results in compounding of stigma and places people with mental health issues in places where such issues get aggravated.

Earlier, Lakshmi Vijayakumar, Sneha founder, said the Mental Healthcare Act had stated that nobody could be punished for attempting suicide, making Section 309 of IPC redundant. “But the fact is, it is still reportable. So, medical colleges and casualty departments still have to report cases. This means added stigma, added interference from the police and undercounting of attempted suicides,” she said, adding: “We hope the judiciary and government will understand this problem and repeal Section 309 of IPC.”

World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan, in a video message, called for a comprehensive multi-sectoral suicide prevention strategy. “Suicide prevention needs coordination and collaboration among multiple sectors,” she said, adding it was important to know the common methods of suicides to devise preventive strategies, including restricting access.

Dr. Lakshmi Vijayakumar said half a million people in distress had called Sneha’s helpline. Within two months, a chat service would be launched for young people in distress. Pointed out the lack of a national plan or strategy to prevent suicides, she said: “We have set up a policymakers mental health forum to nudge or push for action to see that the policy that was written 1.5 years ago is accepted and implemented by the government.”

On the occasion, Sudha Panchapakesan and P. Jayendra Panchapakesan were awarded in recognition of their support and contribution to Sneha. Nalli Kuppuswamy, president of Sneha, also spoke.

(Assistance for overcoming suicidal thoughts is available on the State’s health helpline 104 and Sneha’s suicide prevention helpline - 044 24640050. Those in distress could also seek help and counselling by calling helplines from this link)

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