A ticking time bomb: Tackling India’s mental health crisis

mental health problem in india
India needs to break the taboos linked to mental health and remove the stigma around such issues.

By Advaita Puri and Aishwarya Mishra

India’s mental health challenge: The way Indian society looks at mental health hasn’t changed in ages. Mental illness has a stigma attached to it and the number of psychiatrists and counselors in the country remains appallingly low. While everyone is conscious of physical health and possesses great amounts of knowledge about superfoods, diets and workouts, they do not have any clue when it comes to mental health. A large number of Indians are not even aware of the mental health issues they might be facing.

According to the World Health Organisation, there is a huge shortfall in the number of psychologists and psychiatrists needed in the country. Around 7.5% of the country’s population is affected, but the number of mental health experts available is less than 4,000.

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Mental health is an important aspect that redefines every stage of a person’s life – from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. A state of well-being that concerns our emotional, psychological, and social well-being has a profound impact on how people think, act, and feel. The United Nations has declared October 10 as the World Mental Health Day, highlighting the importance of mental health in peoples’ lives.

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The missing mental health infrastructure

The numbers released by the WHO are quite revealing. India has 0.3 psychiatrists, 0.12 nurses, 0.07 psychologists and 0.07 social workers among a population of 100,000 (see graphic). The desirable number according to the WHO is 3 and above. WHO has predicted that around 20% of Indians will fall victims to mental health disorders by the end of 2020. The data reveals that around 38 million Indians suffer from anxiety disorders and around 56 million from depression.

The worst part is that Indians are hesitant to seek help and the discovery of mental health issues is followed by denial and hesitation. The topic is taboo and comes with a huge social burden, age-old stigmas, prejudices and fears. People tend to push mental health issues under the carpet and continue to suffer in silence. No wonder India’s contribution to global suicide deaths rose from 25.3% in 1990 to 36.6% in 2016 in the case of women, and from 18.7% to 24.3% in the case of men. It is important to support individuals to shed inhibitions and talk freely. The next step is to connect them to mental health professionals through family and friends.

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India’s share in world’s suicides

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             Women                                            Men

According to World Health Organisation data, age-adjusted suicide rate is 21.1 for a population of 100,000. The Global Burden of Disease Study shows that one in seven Indians have different mental disorders of varying severity (2017). The case burden for India has doubled since 1990. The economic loss due to mental health conditions between 2012 and 2030 is expected to be $1.03 trillion.

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Tackling the mental health challenge

It is time to break the taboos linked to mental health and remove the stigma around such issues. The media has a huge role to play. At least 450 million people suffered from mental health issues in 2019, making it a leading cause of ill-health and disabilities worldwide. A large number of voluntary organisations have entered the field to bridge the shortfall in mental health facilities and manpower. There are several online platforms that are doing a commendable job of helping people and reducing their misery. They employ expressive, music, and art therapy. These platforms help people connect with the right therapist. And they are doing a stellar job of making mental health services accessible for everyone.

What is the way ahead? The most important action required is spreading awareness about mental health, helping people understand the symptoms and identify problems. This can be done through programmes and workshops conducted in schools, colleges, corporates, and communities. At an individual level, it is important that people check on friends and family and recognise any signs in mental illness, and encourage them to seek assistance from professionals.

(Advaita Puri and Aishwarya Mishra work for GoodLives, a Gurugram-besed startup working to make mental health accessible to all.)