One expects that the very members of parliament who collectively passed legislation to assure mental health care rights would be more considerate about the same, but, judging from Sitaram Yechury’s comments in Rajya Sabha, it seems like that’s hardly the case.
The CPM MP, during the passing of the Rights of Persons With Disabilities Bill in parliament on Wednesday, made some truly derogatory ableist wisecracks about its definitions of various mental health disabilities. “I want to know who the authority to interpret them is,” said Yechury. He continued, “Otherwise, the whole House can come under these clauses, ‘mentally disabled’, ‘intellectually disabled’, ‘loss of hearing…” And these comments were treated like a joke and met with unanimous laughter from fellow MPs.
It’s almost ironic that the Bill they were passing while making light of these very legitimate types of mental disorders, actually stipulates that discrimination against persons with disabilities would lead to fines and imprisonment. The Bill is a significant one – because, for the first time, it goes beyond physical disabilities and recognises disorders related to mental health as well (autism, cerebral palsy, etc.), and, considering how severely neglected mental health is in our country, it’s a piece of legislation that should have been cause for applause in the parliament rather than ridicule. However, Yechury, with his dismissive comments, failed to understand that significance and continued to be (like so many Indians) totally ignorant of how grave mental illness can be, and how desperately we need to curb discriminatory attitudes against it.
Over 50 million people suffer from mental health illnesses in India, and nearly half of those do not receive the requisite treatment because of the deep-rooted taboos surrounding the same. In the midst of this, to have our political representatives use such ableist language and derail conversations about it is cause for concern. Not only does it seek to normalise a lax attitude towards serious health concerns, but makes it even more difficult for those suffering from these conditions to open up and seek help – for fear of being judged and laughed at.
The events at the parliament, perhaps, are symptomatic of how we view mental health care rights as a whole in India. Due to a lack of awareness and misinformation, so many Indians continue to foster myths about people who suffer from mental health issues, and the fact that mental health often becomes a punchline (like in this case) doesn’t help either.
A 2013 survey found that there’s a severe lack of mental health care facilities in India, and a big reason behind this is that not enough medical students are encouraged to take up psychiatry either because of the stigmas behind it or because of the lack of infrastructure available for treatments. By not giving importance to mental health, we aren’t enabling enough psychiatrists and mental health professionals, which proves even more harmful, because it leaves so many untreated.
While the Persons With Disabilities Bill in its present form may not be entirely unproblematic because of limited understanding of mental illness and exclusion of those who may not exhibit severe symptoms, it is still an important step in curbing the stigma behind mental illness and seeks to protect and empower those who suffer from it. But, if our politicians continue to undermine efforts like these by cracking ableist jokes, progress may not come as easily.