Depression and suicide are seen as a stigma in Indian Society. Doctors have labeled depression as a medical disorder that adversely affects the patient’s physical and mental health. Awareness drives are being conducted to combat stigma and raise awareness about humanizing the illness and its debilitating mental health consequences.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide has given us all a big lesson on how not to report on issues of mental health and suicide. The media is giving us regularly unconfirmed, confidential details regarding the late actor’s alleged mental health. Since his demise, his mental diagnoses have been preyed on and paraded about in a shockingly voyeuristic manner. All this is against the law and professional ethics.
The Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists, in its code of conduct, denounces the disclosure of patient information to any other person, other than concerned co-professionals or any appropriate authorities. This strict view of confidentiality is the standard code and applies to the work of healthcare professionals around the world. The code is also included in the Hippocratic Oath and the Declaration of Geneva.
It is an evident fundamental principle of healthcare providers: to maintain the patient’s confidence when discharging their professional duties.
Confidentiality is the basis of the very foundation on which a trusting therapeutic relationship is built. If patients cannot trust their doctor to keep their medical conditions secret, then patients may withhold information that may be key to the planning and provision of their care.
The patient has a right to decide how their private information is used and shared with others. Although India doesn’t have a personal data protection Act, the Supreme Court, in its judgments, has deemed the right to privacy to be fundamental, protected by the Constitution.
Healthcare providers in India have a clear legal obligation to maintain strict confidentiality about any aspect of their patient’s mental illness. These rights of a person with mental illness have been mentioned in the Mental Health Care Act (MHCA) 2017.
There are exceptions to it too. The information can be shared if it is used to protect the patient against harm, threats to life, and which are in the interest of public safety. But it could be done after a statutory authority, like a high court or the Supreme Court, orders it. Also, the information could be disclosed to a nominated representative.
But in Rajput’s case, we have seen that the release of confidential information regarding his alleged mental health status and treatment don’t qualify for any of these exceptions outlined in the Act.
How and why did this confidential information be released in the public domain, when they have no business of being there?
Medical Practitioners claiming to treat Rajput have revealed details of Rajput’s apparent diagnosis to journalists, breaching the confidentiality between doctor and patient. This makes their disclosure of Rajput’s unsubstantiated personal data to the media and public both unethical and unlawful. This reveals gross professional misconduct, where the government and the public is overlooking or rationalizing these actions.
This brings a considerable disservice to the unremitting efforts of activists working to destigmatize mental health issues in India. It leads us to question his right to privacy and violating it when he can no longer defend it.
India needs enforcement of a legal duty for data protection. If we grant media unfettered access to unethical mental health professionals, it will only cause harm in improving mental health access in India.