Around 150 million Indians are in need of mental healthcare. This is according to government data, which highlighted the significance mental disorders among the population at 10.6 percent. Depression alone affects 56 million people and anxiety disorders affecting 38 million.
When experts convened for the third High-Level United Nations Meeting on Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) last month, one of the key takeaways was the recognition of mental health conditions as a cause for concern at the same level as other chronic conditions. On World Mental Health Day 2018, India ought to bear this in mind and consider the very real threat mental illness poses to the nation.
President Ram Nath Kovind has warned of a mental health epidemic in India but despite this grim reality a mere ten percent of those who require mental healthcare can avail it. Compounding the crisis is the stigma those with mental health conditions suffer from their fellow citizens.
“These findings are suggestive of a prevalent attitude within Indian society that those suffering from mental health conditions should be ostracised. Such prejudice can deter sufferers from seeking help.”
Earlier this year, a survey of 3,556 Indians in the 18-45 age bracket found great swathes of the population hold prejudicial attitudes towards those with mental health issues. For example, 47 percent of respondents used the word ‘retard’ to describe sufferers. Forty percent said those with mental health issues were ‘crazy/mad/stupid’.
Shockingly, 68 percent of respondents said those suffering from mental health disorders should not be given responsibility. Sixty percent said that the mentally ill ‘should have their own groups’ as ‘healthy people need not be contaminated by them.’
These findings are suggestive of a prevalent attitude within Indian society that those suffering from mental health conditions should be ostracised. Such prejudice can deter sufferers from seeking help. The same survey revealed that 26 percent of respondents were afraid of being categorised as mentally ill.
“Stigma is not the only reason why many Indians suffering from mental health disorders do not avail treatment. Many simply can’t.”
Stigma is not the only reason why many Indians suffering from mental health disorders do not avail treatment. Many simply can’t. To cope up with demand, India needs 2,500 psychiatrists but it has just 898.
Among vulnerable groups, suicide rates have reached epidemic levels including farmers, seniors, and students. In fact, India has the highest suicide rate among young people in the world.
With all this in mind, it is staggering that accessing mental healthcare remains a challenge for the tens of millions of Indians suffering from such conditions – whether it is because of stigma, lack of accessibility, or both.
World Mental Health Day should give Indians pause for thought to consider what is a veritable public health crisis that – thanks to stigma – is brewing in silence. As the UN panel recognised, ensuring good mental health goes some way towards reducing the burden of NCDs and therefore improving public health overall.
Awareness campaigns of the kind organised by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Bhubaneswar could go some way towards changing minds and reducing the burden of prejudice. This ought to be coupled with efforts to recruit greater numbers of mental health professionals. The shortages in these positions fit in with a broader pattern across India’s public health system of crippling shortfalls of key medical specialist positions.
It must be remembered, that even though World Mental Health Day is an appropriate occasion to appraise the situation in India and identify where the issues lie, it is clear that addressing the scourge of mental illness in India cannot be a once-a-year observance. Improving mental health in India must be a sustained effort, incorporating all stratas of society to make an India that is mentally well – and healthier overall.