Build a conversation on mental health

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The recent countrywide survey by the reputed National Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences, Nimhans, is a wake up call to how lifestyle changes are having an impact on the mental health of Indians.

The report says that a shocking 13.7% of India’s general population suffers from some form of mental illness. A majority of them, over 10% are in need of urgent medical intervention, which translates to about 150 million Indians.

Nearly one in 20 people suffer from depression. Women between 40-49 years are especially vulnerable and report high rates.

Despite being among the first countries to develop a national mental health policy, this is the first time that a proper, in depth study has been done to understand the spread of mental illness in India. Earlier studies at the state levels had several loopholes.

The incidence of mental illness is especially high in urban areas, which is perhaps only too obvious given that is here that the impact of lifestyle changes, changes in family support structures and issues related to job stress are most apparent.

The report raises red flags on many fronts. One is the sheer scale. The other is the huge gap in terms of treatment. This extends to both mental health specialists as well as institutions.

A 2013 government of India study said that there are 3,800 qualified psychiatrists in the country as against the required 11,500. When it comes to clinical psychologists, the requirement is 23,000. The availability is 850. The figures for psychiatric nurses are equally dismal.

The other alert is the widespread stigma attached with mental disorders. The Nimhans report says that 80% of people suffering from mental disorders had not received any treatment despite suffering for over a year.

A major step towards ending the stigma is to build a conversation around mental health. In this regard, it is encouraging to see celebrities like Deepika Padukone come forward to talk about their struggles with depression. It’s a small step, however, given the sheer scale of the mental health crisis India faces. There is a need to look initiatives by NGOs like Sangath that train workers at primary health centres to counsel patients in the community on dementia, depression and schizophrenia.

Rather than just a top down approach, the government needs to encourage and incorporate community level initiatives to help end the stigma and heal.

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