India’s increasing mental health issues are a subject of alarming concern. According to the data journalism website IndiaSpend at least six crore Indians suffer from mental disorders. A report in The Lancet states that people with mental illness could account for nearly 20 per cent of India’s population by 2020. The numbers are reason enough to sit up and take notice.
Despite the growing statistics, our infrastructure continues to remain poor. India, which spends 0.06 per cent of its health budget on mental health care, has an acute shortage of professionals who can help people with mental disorders. To help put this in perspective, there are 0.30 psychiatrists, 0.17 nurses and 0.05 psychologists per 1,00,000 mentally ill patients in the country. We are a young nation. It is imperative that all Indians, especially our young, are given support for them to cope with various life stressors that impact their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Unresolved stressors impact the mind and can cause depression, anxiety and stress-related disorders. Furthermore, it is important to note that it is in their youth and productive years that individuals first exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress-related disorders. If left untreated, it can increase the economic burden on the individual and the community.
As the famous proverb goes—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—it is crucial to reduce the stigma surrounding therapy and mental health so that it is normalised and becomes part of our everyday conversation. Going to a therapist or counsellor needs to be accepted and embraced by the society. This will help us build timely interventions, thereby preventing and minimising the various triggers that cause mental disorders.
Social influencers from various walks of life promoting and accepting mental health as an important facet of health care will help break down the strong walls of stigma that are associated with mental health. With India being a collective country with a more group-oriented mindset, we need to borrow the trickle-down effect from consumer goods marketing. This is a model of product adoption that essentially states that fashion flows vertically from the upper classes to the lower classes within society, each social class influenced by a higher social class. In addition, psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists working in tandem will help aid those already in need of serious intervention. This would mean increasing the engagement between the complementary professions. There have been several cases where a combination of talk therapy and medication has helped clients improve drastically as well as provide the right intervention.
It is important to incorporate mental health interventions in smaller cities and towns as well. This can be done by creating model mental health towns by educating and training individuals in basic counselling and listening skills. In the absence of certified professionals, this will bridge the gap and help people who need a listening ear. In this way, we will be engaging and helping both rural and urban communities, thereby creating a more holistic environment for large-scale change.
At an intervention level, educating general practitioners in hospitals and clinics on first-level treatment and identifying physical symptoms of mental disorders like anxiety and depression will greatly help prevent further ailments. Hospitals and clinics can also have practising counsellors. This will work on two levels—one, providing access to a counsellor then and there; two, normalising the fact that one can go to a counsellor just as one goes to a general practitioner for fever or cold.
India has the highest suicide rate among youngsters as per The Lancet, with an Indian having a nine per cent chance of developing depression. The World Health Organization estimates that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. And, world over, mental health is becoming a serious cause for concern. When one sees the numbers stacked up, the time to act is now. We, as a country, can take on the challenges by using a multi-pronged approach. The past cannot be changed, but the future is still in our power.
The writer is a social psychologist and author.