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Suicide rate data: WHO-Government disparity?

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Mental health is one of the major issues facing public health in India at present. Approximately 150 million Indians are affected by mental health issues, with suicide being a leading cause of death in the country – especially among young people. However, suicide rate figures reported by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) appear to be mismatched compared to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) – as highlighted in a recent Times of India report.

According to the NCRB, India’s suicide rate dropped by two percent between 2015 and 2016 – a decrease to 131,008 deaths in the latter year compared to 133,623 in the former year. However, the WHO figures suggest 100,000 more suicide deaths than what the NCRB indicated in its estimates during the same time period – with 230,000 deaths recorded in 2016 due to suicide.

Misestimations of India’s suicide rate tie into the fact that mental healthcare is an egregiously underserved area when it comes to public health discourse in India. Even as high-profile public figures such as President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have drawn attention to mental health issues in recent years, there persists a staggering treatment gap for mental health issues in the country. 

Figures released by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare earlier this year pegged the treatment gap at between fifty and seventy percent, with a dearth of mental health professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists driving the accessibility issue. Versus a population of 150 million experiencing mental health difficulties, just 898 clinical psychologists and 3,800 psychiatrists are available to respond to their needs. The urban-rural divide, as it does in so many areas of healthcare, comes into play as India’s mental healthcare workforce is sequestered largely in cities leaving the wellbeing of rural India sorely neglected. Such deficits occur against the backdrop of inadequate funding for mental healthcare in India, which represents a mere 0.16 percent of total health allocation in the country

Data such as that pertaining to India’s suicide rate is essential in both ascertaining the scope of the country’s mental health crisis and dictating to policymakers and influencers the real need for enhanced investment into mental healthcare and human resources in the field. The Lancet billed suicide in India as “a complex public health tragedy in need of a plan” in a report, going on to note that “the suicide statistics published by the NCRB are based on police reports and under-reporting and misclassification of suicide deaths is common.” 

“There are substantially more suicide deaths in India each year than AIDS-related deaths (62,000 in 2016) and maternal deaths (45,000 in 2015) combined…suicide prevention has attracted considerably less public health attention,” The Lancet states. However, the report does have some good news,  “a public health approach to suicide prevention is gaining momentum in India. A recent highlight has been the Mental Health Act 2017 through which there have been moves to decriminalise suicide. 

“A pivotal next step will be to carry this momentum towards the development of a national suicide prevention plan. Such a national plan would indicate political commitment and give justified prominence to the issue of suicide prevention, attract resources, set strategic research and programme priorities, and provide guidance in mainstreaming suicide prevention across other health and social policies.”

Contact details for mental health support in India can be accessed here. 

If you are suicidal or experiencing suicidal thoughts, visit your nearest hospital or contact AASRA on 91-22-27546669 or Sneha India on 91 44 24640050 helpline. A list of other suicide helplines can be accessed here.

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