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Why Don’t We Care About India’s Mental Health Crisis That Affects 97 Million People?

“As I sit in my room on a particularly dark afternoon, life seems all but a melancholic drone of has beens and would bes, mechanically wheezing into a nightmarish scenario where shadows are friends and humans seem unfriendly. The clock ticks like it is the harbinger of my doomsday, my mind screams, wanting everything to stop! Gears slip into motion, my monsters crawl out of my own mind and sing me the most painful soliloquy. My life squishes like a squandered set of useless paraphernalia while my mind keeps telling me to just not do it anymore.”

This is not an excerpt from a Stephen King novel, albeit it may be very scary. It is the rant of a mind suffering from anxiety, one of the many mental health illnesses plaguing the human population. Sadly, most people do not care.

A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

Yet, major sovereign states have failed to provide justifiable legislation for the same, or have refused to put enough stress on it. To provide a particular example, let’s take India, the country of my birth and the subject of my patriotism. India is a nation of 1.34 billion people, constituting the world’s largest youth population and second largest population overall.

Image Credit: MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

Statistical reports from the WHO show us that almost 7.5% of the population of India suffers from mental health disorders, with the number growing by the passing day.

These disorders constitute depression, anxiety, hypertension, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to name a few.

People suffering from such disorders require expert intervention and regular treatment for improvement, so as to ensure that a large part of the global population is not only physically fit, but mentally as well. However, a particular case study will show that might not be the case.

Mental health treatment institutions in India are mostly three-fold: private high-end facilities, government facilities and religious facilities. While the first case scenario is only for an elite segment of the population, it is mostly the other two which most people can avail.

However, India is facing a mental health crisis. With only 43 government-run mental hospitals serving a population of 1.3 billion, resources are spread thin. Moreover, mental illness is highly stigmatised in India, especially among women, who are typically committed to mental health facilities with no legal rights, and receive involuntary treatment sometimes without a proper diagnosis.

The worst-case scenario are religious institutions and independent cult leaders who proceed to treat mental health illness on their own with confounding, unscientific practices including the likes of black magic and sacrificial rituals.

Yet, however unsatisfactory the medical practices surrounding mental health or the interest shown in it from a professional aid perspective may be, the worst problem for mental health illness is social stigma.

Stigma is officially defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Mental health issues have often been deemed weak and disgraceful, a mark of wasteful elitism and a rotten excuse by people in human civilisation since time immemorial.

Because of this, a huge number of people still go on to ask a depressed person to just “forget it and move on”, call someone with ADHD or similar issues to be making excuses or being ‘elitist’ and ‘wasteful’, and not to forget, pin any behaviour deviating from the norm upon one strategic word, ‘madness’. Like a disease, not one which needs to be treated, but one which is disgraceful and needs to be exterminated.

When such levels of stigma exist as norms in the human society for centuries, people suffering from mental health illnesses hesitate to acknowledge their issues and seek public help for fear of having no personal comfort, and for being ostracised with mean, dispirited comments, along the lines of ‘weak’, ‘disgraceful’ and ‘loser’, to name just a few.

Corporate policies surrounding mental health illnesses are far too few, recognition of the same as a legitimate health concern is astoundingly low, even for educated individuals, and social acceptance for mental health illnesses are catastrophic. All of this does not cut a pretty picture for something we should definitely not be ignoring or castigating.

Of course, not everything is bleak. Many developed nations have constitutional laws and legislative precedence for acceptance of mental health issues and protection of those suffering from related causes. Developing countries are following suit, with India having recently passed a law to decriminalise suicide attempts and provide better healthcare for patients of mental health disorders.

Yet, until a higher number of facilities are provided at a sovereign level, and the social stigma surrounding the same is not shattered, progress, however promising, will seem unconvincing.

Sovereign improvements require better political philosophy, a discussion beyond the mandate of this article. However, no amount of legal or political support will matter till social acceptance for these issues do not improve, a conundrum which requires more education about the same, grassroots movements and an altogether improved level of awareness, thus leading to amicable acceptances.

Although this does seem a long way off, many local non-profits and popular public personalities have taken up this cause and have launched a crusade to improve circumstances surrounding it.

One particular initiative I absolutely love and am involved with is ‘Lonepack’. As a small, up and coming non-profit organisation based in India, we have been fighting the stigma surrounding mental health for over a year now through multiple campaigns.

Our latest campaign, ‘Save The Whale‘ challenge, is an attempt to increase positivity over the internet and provide a challenge to the despicable ‘Blue Whale‘ game. Many other organisations exist who engage in similar work.

However, it cannot just be institutions fighting the good fight, it has to be everyone. Only then will this crusade actually mean something and be successful in making a difference.

Maybe there is a future better than the situation we are in today, but that will never be possible without enough awareness. Next time you meet someone suffering from a mental health disorder, do not attempt to jeer or advice. Reach out a hand and be there for them with nothing but silent support.

Let us make this world a better and more acceptable place, one person at a time. Till then, all we have is hope. Surely, we can do better than that?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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