Elephant in the room

Over 90 million Indians, or 7.5% of the population, suffer from mental health issues, but this has never been a priority for policymakers

AuthorPublished: 17th Jun 2020  12:00 amUpdated: 16th Jun 2020  7:39 pm

Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide has re-kindled a much-needed conversation on the state of mental health in India. The insensitive media coverage of the tragedy, particularly by the news channels, and the horrifying comments on social media platforms reflect the tone-deaf approach of our society to the issues of mental illness. Sushant’s journey — an engineering graduate from a small town to a rising star in a relentlessly cut-throat industry with no godfather or family connections — may be an inspirational story for aspiring artistes but what remains unspoken is his inner struggle with loneliness and a sense of hopelessness. Depression is an invisible stalker who pulls the victim into a black hole of loneliness. The social stigma surrounding mental disorders often forces the patients to suffer in silence. The situation in India is particularly alarming because it is a taboo to talk about mental health problems and support systems are woefully inadequate. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 90 million Indians, accounting for 7.5% of the population, suffer from mental health issues but, unfortunately, this has never been a priority for the policymakers. Major reasons that prevent many patients from seeking medical treatment are high healthcare costs, social stigma and lack of awareness about the available therapies. The woefully inadequate infrastructure and shortage of specialists is another major obstacle. When it comes to mental healthcare personnel, India has 9,000 psychiatrists, or one doctor for every 1,00,000 people, while the WHO norms say there should be three for every 100,000 people.

While addressing these structural and financial lacunae, it is also important for society not to stigmatise the victims but provide a community support structure so that they are not left to wage a lone battle. Mental health issues are among the leading causes of non-fatal disease burden in India; one in every seven Indians was affected by mental health issues in 2017. The proportional contribution of mental health to the total disease burden has almost doubled since 1990 and suicide was the leading cause of deaths among young people — aged 15 to 39 — in 2016. India’s spending on mental healthcare is abysmally low. In the 2019 Budget, the allocation for the National Mental Health Programme (NMHP) was brought down to Rs 40 crore from Rs 50 crore in the previous year. Strengthening the health infrastructure to address the needs of mentally ill people must get top priority by the Central and State governments. Those diagnosed with mental illness are entitled to a life of dignity and proper treatment.

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