Chennai: All citizens of India have the right to vote, although the Representation of the People Act, 1950, disqualifies a person who is "of unsound mind" and "stands so declared by a competent court".
The archaic law holds no scientific value today.
Mental health problems can affect anyone across economic classes, gender and backgrounds. The estimated prevalence of mental
illness is 10% of the population and among this 1%-3% of them have severe psychotic conditions such as bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia. But not all of them are admitted to hospitals.
Studies around the world, including India, show that 10% of people with mental illness may require institutional care, mostly for a brief period of time.
The idea of having a polling booth inside a mental health institution in one stroke removes stigma and allows people with mental illness to exercise their right. It is important to note that not all people in institutional care have impaired judgment. Nearly 30% of the patients have persistent positive symptoms despite all efforts and these patients may not exercise their franchise while the rest of the 70% improve well enough to participate in all life activities. So, why should this latter group lose their right to vote? In case of the Institute of Mental Health, Kilpauk, doctors have certified 192 patients fit to cast their vote.
This is not the first time. In 2016, about 102 women of The Banyan exercised their franchise. They felt a great sense of satisfaction for having performed an important role of a citizen. This experience was the first of its kind in the country and motivated many working in the area of mental health to actively advocate for this right as it is only through the electoral process that their issues be highlighted. For instance, homelessness is a reality for many mentally ill people. There are 1.77 million homeless people in India. It is sad that the world’s biggest democracy does not take into account their voices. Since they cannot demand their rights and highlight the issues they face, the responsibility lies with civil organizations and society at large.
As with any other disease, in mental illness too, early intervention offers better outcomes. Then, why deny the mentally fit IMH inmates a chance to vote. Most of them have mood changes, but it is wrong to think that mentally ill people lack the ability to judge and act appropriately in a situation. They are able to understand the manifestos of political parties and can choose an appropriate candidate. In turn, those running for elections will begin to debate about the mental health
policies. This will improve the entire healthcare system.
It is important for them to feel included in the political and electoral process. The electoral officers, members of the civil society, volunteers should educate these people about the process without influencing them in any way. They should receive appropriate education about the electoral process well in advance. With continued effort, it is possible to empower this section of society.
(The author is a consultant psychiatrist and director of The Banyan and Balm, an NGO that caters to destitute mentally ill women)