Sep 19, 2012, 12.00AM IST , TNN

Distress doesn’t need discipline – it needs empathy and understanding.

The Union health ministry’s move to have attempted suicide
decriminalised is welcome. Following a similar observation by the
Supreme Court, the new Mental Health Care Bill, 2012, likely to be
presented in Parliament‘s winter session, argues it is time attempted
suicide be treated not as a legally punishable offence but a
psychological problem. Those trying to end their lives merit care and
concern rather than incarceration and fines, as the IPC’s Section 309
currently prescribes. This shift in the state’s perspective on the
very ownership of life is significant. Punishing those who have
reached such a fragile state of mind, as to attempt ending their own
life, reflects a frowningly paternalistic state, taking on the
disciplining authority of an iron-handed guardian. This archaic
attitude characterised an earlier age of monarchies, theocracies and
colonial states when people were subjects, not citizens.

In the modern age, an enlightened state reaches out to those in
distress, respecting an individual’s right to his own life and
recognising that complex strains could impact a being so hard, it is
plausible – but hardly punishable – that they crack. Social or
economic causes of such severe stress – often, the bullying students
face, the harassment for dowry or male children women undergo, the
failure of crops indebted farmers suffer – should be tackled seriously
by the state. But those attempting suicide in depression or distress
should be given the best counselling and the widest empathy to help
them recover. Any enlightened state knows whose life it is anyway –
the point for government is to assist and enrich this, not, as Michel
Foucault remarked of an authoritarian 18 {+t} {+h} century French
system, to discipline and punish it.