How are 'you'?
India is considered the most depressed country in the world and yet we are still not giving adequate importance to mental health
Yesterday, I must have received at least 30 messages over Whatsapp, email, and social media, replete with the social niceties of inquiring after my health and happiness. I promptly inquired back and pleasantries were exchanged before moving onto the business of the day. This happens every day, right? 'Good morning' and other motivational messages fill phone inboxes, 'hope you are doing well', now the latest 'hope you are safe' etc. follow during the day — and every day unbeknownst, we ask friends, family, acquaintances, and business associates those hackneyed three words — 'how are you?'. But do we actually truly know how they are faring in life or in turn divulge our own struggles?
A number of us this week have been forced to relook our interactions with the world around us. The trigger was the sudden death of a talented, young actor, Sushant Singh Rajput. His death by suicide (apparently this is the proper way of saying this and not 'committed suicide') came as a rude shock to everyone. What ever the correct way of terming his death, the only truth that should matter is that the actor felt so unhappy that he could think of no other way. Investigators are probing the reasons behind his death while conspiracy theories abound; and as he joined the league of Robin Williams, Jiah Khan, Pratyusha Banerjee, Nafisa Joseph, and a long list of others from India and the world, Rajput's death came as an awakening to us all. It is hard to accept that a dashing actor with several box-office hits in his kitty, and a promising future ahead, had to resort to suicide. The silence that shrouds his suicide speaks volumes — we have not been taking mental health seriously.
WhatsApp University makes everyone an expert on varying topics — politics, business, religion and health. I am by far not an expert but can only share from personal experience that depression, anxiety, bipolarity are all illnesses just like any other. And chances of us having experienced one or many of them is quite common; there are also chances that we may have lived with someone who suffered from mental illnesses. It is a tough place to be in — constantly trying to hold the peace while the person is on a rampage or constantly placating the anxieties and fears of a family member. These are still quite common and manageable, but many live with people prone to violent, schizophrenic episodes. Even then, those who suffer mental ailments require our patience and understanding; most importantly, they require the help of a medical professional who would be able to identify triggers and treat the ailment with the help of counselling and medicines.
However, in India, we still consider mental illness a taboo; something to be hidden, wished away and forgotten. For a country that is considered the world's most depressed nation, we should be doing things much more differently. Every sixth person in India is suffering some kind of mental illness or the other. According to the National Mental Health Survey (NMHS) of 2015-16, at least 6.5 per cent of Indians have a serious mental imbalance. 36.6 per cent of suicides in the world emanate from India. At least 9.8 million teenagers aged between 13-17 years are depressed. These figures are alarming, but our healthcare system is yet to be equipped with trained mental health workers. As per the World Mental Health Atlas (2014), we have only 0.3 psychiatrists for every lakh in India. We simply need more trained mental health professionals!
A recent news report quoted therapy costing up to Rs 19,000! The reasons for depression and anxiety have definitely increased in the last three months with the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainties of work and health. The rich and affluent have their psychiatrists but how many from the rest of India can even afford therapy? They would rather save the money for 'real' diseases or simply, for living. For most of India, life is still a fight for daily survival and sessions with a shrink are luxuries that are laughable.
So how do we bridge this gap and ensure that the importance of mental health gets its time in the Sun? Things are getting better with the likes of actor Deepika Padukone endeavouring to dispel the shame related to mental ailments. All of us who have health insurance should be aware that our health policies should be covering mental health ailments as mandated by the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. Private companies and public sector must give their employees access to counselling sessions while also dissipating the fear that they will be considered inefficient or inept if they seek medical help. For the poorer sections and rural areas, the government must step in to ensure free counselling sessions and a focus on mental health that can tie in with the health policies of the Centre and the states.
Most importantly, for any of these measures to succeed, first, the shame associated with mental illness has to go. We need mass grassroots outreach; perhaps rope in a big Bollywood or regional actor/sportsperson. Years ago, we did it with Mala D and the awareness campaign needed to encourage women to take birth control pills; can we do the same again? Suicides are preventable; mental ailments can be managed and treated. No other young life should be snuffed out so easily.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal