Psychological well-being acts as the foundational core of a person’s emotional and behavioural characteristics. In 1954, the first Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Brock Chisholm, stated that “without mental health, there can be no true physical health.”
Indeed, over the past few years, mental health has emerged to be a topic of major concern worldwide. However, the consequential effects of mental health disorders are still underestimated when compared to those of other health disorders.
In many low and middle-income countries, the role of proper mental health awareness is vastly underplayed by a majority of the population, and therein lies the fundamental problem. There are numerous causes which hinder the progress in mental health service delivery in such countries. These include societal stigma, lack of enough trained professionals in mental health care, challenges to the delivery of mental health care in primary-care settings, to name a few.
Stigma can lead to discrimination, both of which are negative aspects of ignorance and misinformation. Societal stigma often seeks to victimise individuals exhibiting traits of mental illnesses and ostracise them from the community. This kind of forceful segregation could give rise to self-stigma among afflicted individuals. Self-stigma is the prejudice based on which people with mental illness turn against themselves. The general public tends to disapprove of persons with psychiatric disabilities. Unlike physical disabilities, persons with mental illness are perceived by the public to be in control of their disabilities and responsible for causing them. Phrases like- ‘It’s all in your head’, ‘You don’t look depressed’, ‘You are such a loner’- parroted continuously, only heighten the anxiety of people with mental health conditions. In some even more unfortunate cases, severe mental illnesses have also been subjectively compared to criminal addictions.
Social avoidance is another extreme outcome of such stigma where the public refrains from interacting with people with mental illness. The 1996 General Social Survey (GSS), in which the MacArthur Mental Health Module was administered to a probability sample of 1444 adults in the United States, found that more than a half of respondents are unwilling to spend an evening socialising or working next to a person with mental illness. They are opposed to the idea of having a family member married to a person with mental illness. In a society that brazenly perpetuates such atrocious stereotypes, people with psychiatric disorders are bound to incorporate the same and consider themselves less valued because of their disorders. From thereon, it becomes a downhill slope for their self-esteem and the confidence in their own respective futures. Research has shown that stigma has a deleterious impact on obtaining good jobs and leasing safe housing.
The need to combat societal stigma should be considered as an integral step towards the promotion and propagation of mental health awareness. Campaigns regarding this matter have been known to yield favourable results. However, in order for those campaigns to succeed, we need to educate the common masses about mental illness. The concept of mental health literacy encompasses recognition, causes, self-help, facilitation of professional intervention, and navigating the information highway. Therefore, it proves to be an important measure of awareness and knowledge of mental health disorders.
Enhancement of mental health awareness is a necessity for the large and, predominantly conservative Indian society where most people with mental health problems have been reduced to a voiceless minority. Information-rich, jargon-free contents from reliable sources available via various media portals along with celebrity endorsements and/or documentaries can serve as authentic narratives. Modern technology and social media can prove to be important benefactors in this matter.
Although most government interventions remain confined to urban areas, it is only the public health system, through large programs which can reach the rural masses and encourage their participation. Apart from the National and District Mental Health Programs, the National Rural Health Mission is on its way to becoming the vehicle for delivering mental health as a part of integrated primary care. The educational system also presents multifold opportunities for mental health awareness- the inclusion of mental health narratives, acknowledgement and detection of early signs of mental health conditions, de-stigmatisation, removal of discrimination etc. The organised sector suffers a significant loss of effective workforce through mental ailment. Not only as a part of corporate social responsibility but also to maintain productivity, it becomes important to engage with mental health awareness.
Therefore, to eliminate the blight of mental illness it is necessary to end the apathy regarding the same through government outreach programs, inclusive educational curricula, engaged media platforms and utilisation of modern technology. It is only then can society progress in the right direction.