By Nilanjana Goswami
Delivering the 22nd convocation address at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru on Saturday, President Ram Nath Kovind spoke at length about the state of mental healthcare in India. Kovind pointed out that India is facing a possible “mental health epidemic”, and stressed the need to make mental healthcare facilities accessible to all sections of society by 2022. He also expressed severe concern about the dire shortage of professionals in the field, emphasizing that the need to bridge the gap is a top priority. NIMHANS director B.N. Gangadhar said that nearly 200 postgraduates were conferred degrees during the convocation. Eleven candidates were awarded gold medals for their meritorious performance.
“For those getting their degrees at the convocation, the real challenge has just begun. They are going into a world where their skills are acutely needed more than ever before. The country does not just have a mental health challenge but is also facing a possible mental health epidemic,” the President said. “By 2022, India needs to ensure that those suffering from severe mental health disorders are diagnosed and have access to treatment facilities. Let us take this up as a national mission,” he remarked. The President drew attention to the sheer dimensions of the problem, by comparing the afflicted population of India with the shortage of medical professionals in the field. Quoting from a survey released by NIMHANS earlier this year, he said: “…10% of Indians have one or more mental health problems in a nation of 1.3 billion people…it is a staggering figure. If you put it in context, the number of Indians suffering from mental health problem is larger than the population of Japan…There are just about 5,000 psychiatrists and less than 2,000 clinical psychologists in our country, these numbers are very small.”
No guilty secrets
He especially lamented the fact that cases of depression and anxiety have steadily risen in the demographic with youth as the prime sufferers. “Mental health is particularly a problem among the young in the prime of their life, among the elderly, and those in urban areas. In India, all three segments are growing” he said. Kovind dealt at length with social attitudes like stigma and denial, which he felt were the two greatest hurdles India as a nation has to overcome in order to freely seek help for mental illnesses. “This leads to the issue being ignored or simply not discussed. In some cases, it leads to self-diagnosis that could worsen the situation” he stated. “We need to talk about mental health issues and treat ailments such as depression and stress as diseases that can be cured — not as guilty secrets to be pushed under the carpet.”
The ray of hope
He concluded by lauding NIMHANS’ contribution towards changing the map of mental health care in India. Pointing out that NIMHANS treated nearly seven lakh patients annually, a large chunk of whom hail from the economically deprived strata of society, he once again drew attention to the need to make mental healthcare facilities efficient as well as economically viable and accessible.
He also encouraged a greater expansion of counselling services, yoga and Vipassana meditation in order to combat the rising strain of mental illnesses across the population. Union Health and Family Welfare Minister J.P. Nadda, present at the occasion, said his Ministry was focussing on increasing the number of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and psychiatric social workers in the country to provide both clinical and ancillary services.
According to a report published by the World Health Organization in 2014, nearly five crore Indians are fighting depression each day, with an availability of only about 0.3 psychiatrists and 0.07 psychologists for over 100,000 people in the country. Rural and deprived sections of the population have negligible access to the existing infrastructure, and the urban population battles societal stigma and prejudice on a daily basis.
There is a burning need for reforming the entire structure, starting from mandatory counselling units in schools to sensitization drives and promoting awareness to combat stigma and denial. Kovind’s address, therefore, sounds a welcome note for the future of mental health in India, signifying that the issue has been taken heed of and the ball has been set rolling on the resolution.
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