Let’s talk about a topic that is seen as taboo in India, Mental Health. Talking about Mental Health in our society is akin to committing a sin. If you dare to talk about depression, stress, and anxiety, most people offer solutions like: “Just stop being sad and don’t tell anyone about this”, or worse, “It’s not a problem, just don’t think about it”.
Given this attitude towards mental health, it is not a surprise that studies indicate that around 43% of people in India suffer from some form of depression. As one would assume, most of them do not take any professional help because if you talk about visiting a psychiatrist, you are labelled as “mad”.
At a time when there is a pandemic forcing people to stay in one place with nowhere to go to let out some stress, disturbed state of mental health of people has become an even bigger problem than before and our ignorant attitude toward it is the biggest challenge.
With many people depressed and in dire need of help, one might ask: why don’t we talk about it?
Log kya kahenge syndrome is what our society struggles with the most. It is a pandemic that gnaws at our social fabric. What people would think worries us more than what we feel. It reigns supreme in influencing people’s decisions. People just emphasise on physical health and tend to overlook mental health.
When it comes to mental health, the general view is having mental health issues is not “normal”. The social pressure to be “normal” manifests in an unhealthy attitude against getting help. Unfortunately, millions who suffer from mental illness are, therefore, under constant pressure to appear “normal” in public. They put on masks of happy, smiling faces and suffer inside due to the taboo around mental health.
Data compiled by IndiaSpend and WHO reveals a staggering treatment gap for all mental health disorders in India: only 10% of patients in the country get treated. In comparison, in the US, that figure is 44%. In South Korea, 82% get access to treatment.
According to surveys, there are 0.75 psychiatrists for every one lakh people in India. India has the most number of people in the world who suffer from some form of depression at some point in their lives, and yet, there are less than 4000 mental health professionals in this country.
Another report by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry states that only 15.6% of the urban and 34.4% of the rural population reported that they would like to go to a psychiatrist when they or their family members have a mental illness. Reports from World Economic Forum reveal 73% of Indians fear or are judgmental about people with mental illness, while 71% used terms associated with stigma to describe mental illness.
With the advent of the pandemic last year, havoc has been wrecked across the world and people’s social, economic and political lives have been disrupted like never before. More than 10 crore people lost their jobs in 2020 in India.
Job loss not only gives one a financial burden to cope with but with it also comes the feeling that you are no longer a respectable person in society. Pride can take a hit when you are barely able to afford what you used to have. Self-doubt and uncertainty take a big toll on your mental health.
As for the people who fortunately still have their jobs, work from home is what many have been doing since the pandemic started. It is a stressful and depressing affair. Being locked down during a pandemic situation makes many anxious and stressed. Being in a regular office environment with a routine that keeps the mind off other things is a privilege one can no longer afford. Productivity levels drop drastically.
All these factors have made everyday activities and work very stressful and badly affected people’s mental health.
What is equally important to talk about is the toll that the pandemic has taken on the mental health of kids and young adults. The restrictions on social interaction have increased the sense of alienation among youth. Being stuck at home, not being able to meet friends or their favourite cousins who also function as a support system for these young people is disturbing.
Though online classes have become the norm in lockdown, the school experience is much more than bookish knowledge. Social interaction and sports are very important for the mental growth of kids. The same is the case for infants, many of whom have never been to school but have started their learning online, hindering the proper development of their mind.
The worst hit are children from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds who cannot afford online learning. They are denied the right to education and their dreams of becoming officers are crushed because smartphones are not something they can afford.
The government not cancelling and just postponing class 12th and similar exams also brings uncertainty and mental fatigue, bringing added misery into students’ lives. This also brings forth the government’s failure in ensuring the fundamental right to education to all as it is indifferent towards the needs of those who do not have access to online education.
Many kids have also lost family members due to the deadly virus and don’t know how to cope with this loss. All in all, the children of this country are suffering gravely. Psychiatrists are warning of the pandemic’s effects on their mental health and there is nothing we as a society are doing about it.
The second wave of the pandemic has come with problems of its own. The health system of the country has collapsed and it is stressing people the most. Visuals of people not getting hospital beds, waiting outside on stretchers with family members crying beside them, people are dying due to oxygen shortage, raging Covid numbers are scaring people and can drive many into mental illness.
Adults across the world, including India, are showing a four-fold increase in anxiety and depression symptoms. Adolescents and young adults are exhibiting even higher rates of emotional distress and a marked increase in substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
It is high time we shun the taboo around mental health, take it as a serious and genuine concern and create mechanisms and institutions that help us deal with our thoughts better. Support from loved ones and the community is what we require as a nation to overcome the stigma.
Society must carve a space for a conversation on issues of burnout, exhaustion, grief and emotional management. It is the only way we can evolve as a nation that is healthier and happier.