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Suicides on an uptick, as pandemic adds fuel to the mental health crisis fire

mental health, suicidal behaviour illustration Copyright: silentgunman / 123RF Stock Photo
One in seven Indians suffer from mental health conditions — most do so in silence. Copyright: silentgunman / 123RF Stock Photo

Mental health issues are a long-standing issue – and the problem has been exacerbated during the pandemic, with mounting rates of suicide since its onset. This is in addition to other issues such as social inequality, severe poverty, and the plight of those working in agriculture. 

The trend has been exemplified by recent news from the Kashmir Valley, where a “manifold increase” in suicides have been reported since the pandemic began according to the United News of India. In Karnataka, meanwhile, infections in rural districts have led to suicides amidst rising stigmatisation and social ostracisation. 

Globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide accounts for one in one hundred deaths. In 2019, more than 700,000 people took their own lives. “We cannot – and must not – ignore suicide,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Each one is a tragedy. Our attention to suicide prevention is even more important now, after many months living with the COVID-19 pandemic, with many of the risk factors for suicide   ̶   job loss, financial stress and social isolation – still very much present. The new guidance that WHO is releasing today provides a clear path for stepping up suicide prevention efforts.” According to the WHO, “suicide rates in the WHO African (11.2 per 100 000), European (10.5 per 100 000) and South-East Asia (10.2 per 100 000) regions were higher than the global average (9.0 per 100 000) in 2019.”

There is no question that COVID-19 has made the situation considerably worse, as Tedros points out. Mental health is taking a major hit as a consequence of COVID-19, a dire situation with which India is painfully familiar. 

In India, according to a study published earlier this year, “higher risk for suicide was observed among male gender and those with positive/suspected COVID infection within the first week, while receiving treatment in COVID care centres. Hanging and jumping were the two commonest methods. The above highlight an urgent need to integrate suicide preventive strategies into standard care protocols of COVID-19 positive and suspected cases.” 

The Government last year launched a helpline for those affected by mental health during the pandemic, but it cannot be overlooked that the country has weathered long-standing issues related to mental health disorders. One in seven Indians are affected by mental health issues but despite the sheer scale of the problem, there is a substantial treatment gap. This has been exacerbated during the pandemic. As reported by Health Issues India last year, the pandemic “has created a vicious cycle in a situation where mental health issues are at an all time high. As more and more individuals find themselves in need of treatment and counselling services, they have become less available. 

“A study conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society (IPS) showed a twenty percent rise in mental health disorder cases, affecting at least one in five Indians during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in India…Even under normal circumstances, these individuals would be unlikely to avail treatment. Mental healthcare accounts for just 0.16 percent of the government budget for health. In addition, there is an acute shortage of psychiatric professionals in the country. Data indicates that there are 0.3 psychiatrists, 0.12 psychologists and 0.07 social workers for every 100,000 Indians.” 

Experts warn that psychological distress as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is a problem India will face for years to come. “People with pre-existing psychiatric conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and dementia have shown exacerbations at this point”, Agewell Foundation founder Himanshu Rath told RFI. Meanwhile, Delhi-based psychiatrist Achal Bhagat told the publication that “the pandemic will leave in its wake communities that will need to be rebuilt. We must remember that COVID-19 has a vaccine now, mental health has no vaccine in sight.” Meanwhile, according to Nelson Vinod Moses of the Suicide Prevention India Foundation, “this underreported crisis has come to the fore. It will only lessen if we have proper community based care that can be provided at all levels.” 

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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