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India fails to address growing mental health problem

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
October 28, 2022

A recent nationwide survey shows that more Indians are suffering from a variety of mental health issues. Psychiatrists are scarce and many people, reluctant to seek help, suffer in silence.

A silhouette of a woman near a curtain
In India, there is a lack of education and awareness concerning psychological disordersImage: Anna Gowthorpe/empics/picture alliance

The latest survey by India's National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) found that nearly 150 million Indians are in need of mental health care services, but fewer than 30 million are seeking care.

"Over 10% of the population has diagnosable mental health or substance use disorder. Mental health is paramount, and getting treatment for mental disorders is not a luxury but a necessity," Pratima Murthy, director of NIMHANS, told DW.

The National Mental Health Survey looked at issues such as mental morbidity, which is physical and psychological deterioration resulting from a psychological condition. It also looked at neurosis and stress disorders. Alarmingly, the survey concluded that 1% of the sample size is at high risk of suicide.

In 2017, a survey of mental health in India by the Lancet medical journal showed that diagnoses of psychological disorders doubled from 1990 to 2017.

Not enough mental health professionals 

In India, mental health disorders often remain hidden, as there is a lack of education and awareness concerning psychological disorders.

"Many children and young people experience mental health problems in India. Yet social stigmas and negative attitudes toward mental health prevent young people from seeking the support they need. It is time to break the silence around mental health and illness," Arjan de Wagt, a deputy representative from UNICEF India, told DW.

There are also not enough mental health professionals to treat people who do seek help. This is especially true in rural parts of India.

According to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, there are only 0.75 psychiatrists for every 100,000 patients in India. A better ratio would be 3 to 100,000, the journal said.

But even this number is low compared with countries such as Germany, where there are more than 13 psychiatrists for every 100,000 patients as of 2015, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

An empty hosptial corridor
There is less than 1 psychiatrist for every 100,000 mental health patients in India Image: Nehal Johri/DW

And, despite data showing a rise in mental health issues, India's Health Ministry in 2022 allocated less than 1% of its budget to directly deal with psychological illnesses.

Prioritizing mental health

"India needs a decentralized approach to mental health that's not run by the government," Nelson Vinod Moses, of Suicide Prevention India Foundation, told DW.

"Offering subsidies and grants for starting clinics, hospitals, tech-enabled innovations, research, public health campaigns, and peer-based interventions is the need of the hour," he added.

Anjali Nagpal, a Delhi-based psychiatrist, told DW that policies need to be enacted to make mental health treatment a national priority, which will then have a positive effect on tackling other ailments.

"Minimizing the stigma will help in not just reducing the financial burden due to mental health illness, but will also help the government to achieve its targets in other medical fields like diabetes, hypothyroidism, hypertension and cardiology, which are affected by overlooking mental health," Nagpal said.

Economic output also affected 

During the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a marked rise in mental health issues globally. In India, mental health issues were seen especially among white-collar workers.

Last month, an exhaustive survey by Deloitte, a management consultancy company, found that 47% of professionals surveyed consider workplace-related stress as the biggest factor affecting their mental health, followed by financial challenges.

The report estimated that mental health issues cost Indian employers about $14 billion per year because of absenteeism, lower productivity and attrition.

The WHO estimates that mental health issues cost the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity.

The Deloitte study also found that 80% of India's workforce reported mental health issues during the past year. Despite these alarming numbers, the report said social stigmas around mental health issues prevented 39% of the affected respondents from taking steps to manage their symptoms.

How the pandemic impacts mental health

For World Mental Health Day earlier this month, India's Health Ministry launched a 24-hour mental health service called Tele Mental Health Assistance and Networking Across States (Tele-MANAS).

It aims to increase access to psychiatric care across the country, including in hard-to-reach areas.

Callers are connected online to mental health specialists such as clinical psychologists, psychiatric social workers, psychiatric nurses or psychiatrists.

"We acknowledge the mental health crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. If a caller needs in-person services, they will be referred to a health and wellness center or primary health center or a tertiary care center," a Health Ministry official told DW.

If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https://www.befrienders.org/.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11