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Why India’s Mental Health Crisis is Escalating: The Way Forward

India, the fast-emerging economic power in the world: India has entered a high trajectory path of economic development. Recently, the Prime Minister of India declared that the country would soon be the third-largest economy in the world. India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has reached $3.75 trillion in Dec 2023, from around $2 trillion in 2014. 

As a result, India has become the fifth economic power in the world. Therefore, the country has emerged as a global growth leader. It is contributing over 16% to the world’s growth. However, all is not well everywhere.

Increasing economic inequality, rising unemployment and skill gap, extreme weather fluctuations, etc., are putting pressure on India’s holistic development and people’s well-being, including mental health.  

Understanding the Mental Health Crisis: The mental health scenario in India is alarming. According to WHO, India has one of the highest rates of major depressive disorders globally. The National Mental Health Survey (2015-16) revealed that nearly 150 million Indians need active mental health interventions.

Further, the world’s suicide capital is, unfortunately, India, with over 2.6 lakh cases in a year. Hence, a mental health crisis is escalating. It’s an ‘invisible menace’ for the society. The worst affected is the younger population. This crisis is costing billions of dollars to India’s economy. It is a massive cost to the nation.  

Contributing Factors

Multiple factors are contributing to this mental health crisis. The main reasons are listed below. 

Social Stigma and Lack of Awareness: There is a widespread social stigma attached to mental illness in India. This has led to underreporting and ‘non-standardized’ treatment. People do not come out and seek professional help to treat their mental health conditions. First, they are not aware that they have mental health problems. It may be due to a lack of education and awareness. Second, they do not seek counselling and therapy services. Lastly, most of the people do not avail of psychiatric treatment.  

Insufficient Mental Health Infrastructure: India faces an acute shortage of mental health professionals. There are merely 0.75 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people. Especially in rural and semi-urban areas, people find it difficult to get quality treatment from health professionals. Many seek substandard treatment through quacks and general doctors. Inadequate mental health support, along with a lack of education and awareness are the essential factors in increasing cases of mental health conditions. 

 Socio-Economic Stressors: Rapid urbanization, economic disparities, and social pressures add to the mental health burden. Due to fast urbanization, a cohesive social support system is gradually breaking down. Increasing inequality also contributes to more distress and frustration among youths. Higher parental expectations and a hyper-competitive environment for job seekers make students highly stressed and anxious. These factors led to more people being pushed towards mental health issues.  

The Pandemic’s Impact

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Social distancing, isolation, heavy job losses, and health issues have led to a spike in cases of depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. Most of the poor people were forced to stay in small spaces. According to one study, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an estimated 25% increase in the cases of depression and anxiety in the year 2020.  

The Role of Technology in Addressing the Crisis

Leveraging technology can be a game-changer. Telemedicine and digital platforms have made mental health services more accessible, especially in remote areas. However, the vast majority must be made aware of such digital services. Hopefully, with greater awareness and mobile connectivity, more people are now availing of these services. 

AI and Mental Health

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is emerging as a vital tool. AI-driven chatbots and virtual therapists offer support and reduce the burden on the healthcare system. They provide confidentiality and anonymity. Besides, they encourage people to seek help without fear of social stigma. It is comparatively a cheaper intervention, compared to seeking help from mental health professionals like psychiatrists, counsellors, and therapists.   

The Government’s Role

Policy Implementation: The Mental Healthcare Act 2017 was a positive step. However, its implementation needs more focus. State government should be more proactive. More attention is required in implementing the policies for delivering mental health services.  

Increased Funding: Mental health needs higher allocation in the healthcare budget.

Public Awareness Campaigns: These can help break the stigma and educate the public about mental health. In fact, from high school onwards, mental health awareness should be accorded high priority. The syllabus should include relevant reading material to spread awareness and educate students about this subject.  

Community Involvement

Grassroots movements and community-based programs are critical. They can offer support, raise awareness, and help integrate mental health services into primary healthcare.

Integrating Traditional and Modern Approaches

India’s rich heritage of holistic health practices can complement the modern medicine system. Alternate therapies like naturopathy, ayurveda, meditation, yoga and deep breathing techniques can complement. They can offer a unique integrated approach. In recent times, these holistic therapies have gained popularity. In all major cities, these services are available in plenty.  

Education and Training

Investing in education and training more mental health professionals is crucial for addressing the shortage of skilled manpower in this sector.

The Road Ahead

The way forward involves a multi-faceted approach. The role of all the stakeholders, especially civil society, is equally essential. They all can make the delivery system accessible and affordable. 

Strengthening Healthcare Infrastructure: The central and state governments must build more mental health facilities. They should train professionals under the National Mental Health Programme, which is a critical component of the National Health Mission. There are plenty of funds under this mission for various programmes. Local government must utilize funds to the maximum.  

Public-Private Partnerships: Government and private sector collaboration can enhance service delivery. A large number of start-ups are coming up to provide digital services for mental health. They are providing services like counselling, psychotherapy, and other alternative therapies. There is a huge demand in public for these services.  

Promoting Mental Health in Schools: Implementing school programs to educate children about mental health. Mental health and mindfulness should be introduced compulsorily in educational institutions like universities and colleges. In the social media age, students go after physique and beauty, not holistic health.   

Conclusion: India’s mental health crisis requires immediate and concerted efforts. Government action, technological innovation, community involvement, and public awareness can pave the way for a healthier future. As the country progresses, ensuring the mental well-being of its citizens is not just a necessity but a collective responsibility. All stakeholders, most importantly, civil society need to play a bigger role.

The author is a writer, life coach, founder of Mind Therapy, a venture of mental health and a ret bureaucrat.