It is not an exaggeration to say that India is reeling under a mental health epidemic. According to a study, between 1990 and 2017, one in seven people in India suffered from mental illness ranging from depression and anxiety to severe conditions such as schizophrenia. Current statistics show that 1 in every 5 individuals in India (20% of the population) suffers from some form of mental illness symptoms. Around 50% of mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75% of mental health conditions develop by age 24. The treatment gap – the prevalence of mental illnesses and the proportion of mentally ill patients getting treatment – is over 70%. And to make matters worse, there are only around 4,000 psychiatrists in the country.
The World Health Organization defines mental illness as a health issue that is associated with changes in thoughts, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others. Common mental health illnesses include depression, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders and stress. Severe mental health illnesses include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression), clinical depression, suicidal tendency and personality disorder.
Does not Discriminate
Mental disorders affect everyone, irrespective of age, gender, residence and living standards, though some groups may be at a higher risk. They are caused by a complex interaction of biological, environmental, social, cultural and economic factors, all of which affect not only the susceptibility to mental disorders but also the chances of recovery from them.
Common mental illness symptoms or effects include persistent negative thoughts, including a preoccupation with death or suicide, difficulty concentrating, tiredness, low energy or severely fluctuating energy levels, feeling of worthlessness or excessive guilt, hearing voices, social withdrawal and wanting to spend excessive amounts of time alone, inappropriate and uncontrollable behaviour, including excessive anger or sadness, reckless and excessive spending and shopping, and severe paranoia that someone is out to harm you.
Unfortunately, in India, the discovery of mental illness symptoms is usually followed by denial and hesitation to seek help. Mental illness remains a taboo subject given the age-old stigmas, prejudices and fears, and this leads to an enormous social burden. Most people end up sweeping their issues under the carpet and suffering in silence. What is most frustrating about this is that mental disorders can be cured or controlled with proper treatment. Hence, to make people overcome the stigma around mental illness, we need to create awareness about mental health and the absurdity of the stigmas attached to mental illnesses.
Crucial First Step
Individuals suffering from mental illness need to talk openly and without inhibitions about their mental health issues. Support provided to such individuals to do so is the crucial first step. The next step is for family and friends to help the individuals seek professional help. If we see red-flags of mental health symptoms or issues in someone close to us, we should take the responsibility to intervene and get them treatment with the help of others.
The internet and social media can play a huge role. They have the power to shatter taboos and end stigma. A mental health campaign on social media is the fastest way to reach out to people. Online apps and support groups can put those with mental symptoms in touch with professionals who can help or those who are facing similar concerns.
It is heartening that those who have recovered from mental illnesses are telling their stories via social media to inspire others. For instance, Deepika Padukone shared publicly, on both traditional and social media, her experiences and struggles with depression. More such celebrities suffering mental illnesses need to come forward because they can have a tremendously positive effect on changing the mindset of the masses who listen to them with awe and respect.
We need to make masses aware of mental health issues through campaigns like Swachh Mansikta Abhiyan. This will help them address mental issues in a timely and effective manner by encouraging them to talk about their mental well-being and reach out to a therapist or psychiatrist, in case they need to do so.
Traditional media can be used by government and other NGOs in the field of mental healthcare to broadcast succinct tag-lines of advertisements and content-rich narrations and documentaries. Mental health professionals also need to engage and partner with media and make accessible simply translated jargon-free content in various regional languages in written and spoken forms. Organisations like the Indian Psychiatry Society, research organisations and medical colleges need to educate the public through their websites. Recovered patients need to be encouraged to share their success stories.
A majority of mental illnesses have their onset before 24 years of age when most are a part of the educational system. Hence, the educational ecosystem should take on the onus of raising mental health awareness via including mental health narratives in curricula and pave the way towards de-stigmatisation, removing discrimination, allowing early detection, and empowering stakeholders for early detection and simple interventions.
The organised industrial sector suffers a significant loss of effective workforce on account of their mental ill-health. Not only as a part of their corporate social responsibility but also with an eye on maintaining productivity, they should engage with mental health awareness in a big and coordinated way.
The other thing that needs to be improved is the acute shortage of resources catered to addressing and treating mental illnesses. We have just 43 state-run mental health institutions across the country. We have only around 4,000 psychiatrists as against the requirement of 11,500; around 900 clinical psychologists as against the need for 17,000; 850 psychiatric social workers as against the need for 23,000; and 1,500 psychiatric nurses as against the need for 3,000. That means there is only one psychiatrist for four lakh Indians and only around 1,000 medical college seats are set aside for training mental health professionals in India.
(The author is a writer and poet; preview his poetry at https://a.co/fyEOQFa )
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