Overcoming the taboo of mental health in India amidst the pandemic

Depression and anxiety attacks are frequently tagged as minor inconveniences only faced by the uber-rich.

Delaying or denying treatment to people who need it most may be the reason for countless deaths across the age and region spectrum.

By Hemant Sethi,

The topics of mental health, social isolation and anxiety over the loss of employment have never been in greater focus than in the age of COVID-19. The fact that mental illnesses can lead to serious adverse outcomes if neglected, makes it even more important to recognize and address this problem during these times of the pandemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) stated in a report that suicides due to depression are the second-most common cause of death in individuals aged 15 to 29 years of age. This busts the myth that the illness only adversely affects the elderly. Going by the report, anyone, whether young or old, could become a victim of depression or other mental illnesses. However, the subject of mental illness is not one that most people would want to talk about openly, and even less, accept the fact that they may be suffering from this problem. This outlook needs to change.

Covid-19 and mental illnesses

Mental ailments can stem from several causative factors. The death of a loved one, or the loss of one’s employment. Factors such as long-term stress, solitude, the fear of poverty, and losing one’s source of income are some of the more common reasons for debilitating mental ailments in individuals. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified these circumstances, impacting many people.

According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, on the prevalence of psychological morbidities among the general population, healthcare workers, and COVID-19 patients, about half of the population faced psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Poor sleep quality (40%), stress (34%), and psychological distress (34%) were the most reported problems across various studies. The report also mentions another online Indian survey which found that about 40.5% of the participants reported anxiety or depressive symptoms. About three-fourths (74.1%) of the participants reported a moderate level of stress, and 71.7% reported poor well-being.

The taboo of mental illness in India

A report states that as per WHO 7.5 percent of Indians suffer from some mental disorder and predicts that by the end of this year roughly 20 percent of India will suffer from mental illnesses. It estimates that about 56 million Indians suffer from depression and another 38 million Indians suffer from anxiety disorders. However, India seems to be far behind in terms of identifying and addressing mental health and the issues related to it.

Depression and anxiety attacks are frequently tagged as minor inconveniences only faced by the uber-rich. What’s worse, Individuals with mental conditions tend to hide their issues due to fear of being looked down upon and judged by a conservative society. Shedding these negative qualities and bringing about a culture change across the board may take several years in India.

Overcoming the taboo of mental illness

On the bright side, here are some examples of how public bodies and organisations can help those with existing mental health conditions. Using these workarounds, eventually, the taboos associated with mental ailments in India can be eliminated.

Increasing the number of mental health experts

There is a serious dearth of mental health professionals in the country. On the surface, it seems that India’s youngsters do not find the field of mental healthcare as exciting or financially rewarding as, say, software engineering or chartered accountancy. As a result, there are simply not enough experts in the country who can provide professional help to the millions, who suffer from such conditions daily. As a solution, students can be encouraged from a young age to pursue a career in psychiatry or other specialised mental health practices. The government can introduce schemes that make it easier for people to get into such courses and graduate with minimal fuss.

On an organisational level, the main management team could increase the number of mental health experts within the company premises. The presence of more professionals can positively influence the way your workers deal with their mental health conditions arising from job stress or other, more personal reasons.

Providing greater access to treatments

Conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and anxiety need expert attention and treatment that cannot be provided by a general physician or even a common psychiatrist. Often, treatments for such conditions may be a complex and drawn-out process and beyond affordability for common people. As a result, several people with such conditions may continue to live through their illnesses.

Delaying or denying treatment to people who need it most may be the reason for countless deaths across the age and region spectrum. To avoid such a snowballing of bad things, the government could make mental healthcare more affordable and accessible for individuals regardless of their economic status. The Healthcare Act, introduced in 2017, is a positive step in this direction.

Building mental fortitude through empathy

Businesses should ensure they have a proper communication channel through which workers with mental health conditions can get through to qualified counselors or designated health experts. The privacy of an individual suffering from a mental health condition is vital and must be respected and preserved. Empathy must be shown towards employees who are stressed with their work or show signs of depression. Occupational safety training should also include proper ways to treat work colleagues in a shared workplace regardless of whether they have mental illnesses or not. Behaviour-based safety programs can be nicely complemented by mental health training and monitoring.

Needless to say, such empathy must also be demonstrated by people across the country towards their fellow citizens. While it may not be fair to expect a massive shift in people’s perceptions regarding mental health and wellness, even small changes in behaviour and attitude will go a long way in alleviating the mental health and well-being of a lot of people.

(The author is Country Head, British Safety Council, India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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