The pandemic is exacerbating issues of mental health; digital tech can help overcome challenges
By Neerja Birla
The National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16 had indicated that at least 10% Indians suffer from a mental health issue. Another study in 2017 revealed this had risen sharply to 15%. Moreover, only 1 in 10 received evidence-based treatment.
After the Covid-19 outbreak, during lockdown 1.0 itself, the Indian Psychiatric Society reported that mental health concerns have escalated by an alarming 20%, with an unprecedented rise in psycho-social concerns like: family issues, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence. Stress and panic attacks have increased by over 35%. Those with depression or anxiety disorders in remission are seeing a relapse. People with OCDs like the compulsion to wash hands are understandably in a state of panic. Sadly, we’ve seen suicides as well because of this pandemic. At Mpower, 40% of the new cases post-lockdown are related to anxiety disorders, 20% to depression, 5% to OCD exacerbation and 20% to relationship issues.
At the 24X7 BMC-Mpower 1on1 Helpline, we have received over 40,000 calls—people from all walks of life, from all over Maharashtra and other states. Roughly 44% of the calls were for mental health issues. As per recorded entries, the male to female ratio of callers was roughly 3:1, and the maximum callers were between the ages of 26 to 40. The top 3 reasons for the calls were: 1) anxiety, panic or depression regarding Covid-19, 2) frustration and adjustment issues due to isolation, and 3) depression.
Our mental health infrastructure is as it is woefully inadequate. We have 1 psychiatrist for every 3 lakh people, 1 psychologist per 15,000 people and only 26,000 hospital beds. Our treatment gap is upwards of 70% and even above 90% in some cities. In lockdown, providing mental health care has become a logistical nightmare.
Many people are unable to travel to a mental health professional or hospital due to movement restrictions and lack of transport options. While mental health concerns have risen exponentially, visits to the mental health centres have fallen drastically—between 20 to 50% across the country.
There is also temporary shortage of anti-psychotic medication, affecting those with severe mental health disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Alzheimer’s. With psychiatric prescriptions beginning to lapse, it is further exacerbating the mental health condition of those who need the medication. With jobs lost and salaries delayed, many do not have the money to buy medicines, which can cost upwards of Rs 2,000/- a month.
What is the road map ahead for us as a nation if the lockdown extends? Firstly, we will need to maximise the use of digital tools for mental health consultations. People can phone or video-call their doctors, counsellors and therapists. Helplines such as the BMC-Mpower 1on1 have a crucial role to play as well by aiding as many people as possible.
Secondly, the government and pharmaceutical companies must ensure adequate production and dissemination of mental health medicines to avoid panic. And lastly, we must all ‘be positive’. We ‘have to believe’ that we will emerge stronger when this pandemic ends. In the meantime, if we or our loved ones experience fear, stress, anxiety or depression, we must seek professional help.
In conclusion, to overcome the challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic, what we need more than anything else is our mental health. Let’s take good care of it.
The author is Founder and Chairperson, Mpower. Views expressed are personal.