The chances of mental health turning into a public health challenge in a post-Corona world are vast only if they are left unattended
The Coronavirus outbreak has birthed another pandemic, that of mental illness. With the world having spent nearly a year battling the outbreak and Indians having spent over six months under various lockdowns necessitated by the contagion, mental well-being has been hit like never before. The major issues that have been reported to have been associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, insomnia, denial, anger and fear. These feelings are fuelled by the fact that people are continually living in fear of contracting the disease. People with pre-existing health conditions and the elderly are under stress of succumbing to the Coronavirus. Worryingly, the urge to commit suicide is looming among the frontline workers and the medical fraternity because of their exhausting and hectic schedules and the ominous situation surrounding them.
Cases of Coronavirus-related suicides have been reported from Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Kerala. In fact, suicide was the leading cause of over 300 non-Coronavirus deaths reported in India during the nationwide lockdown. And then, there is the added pressure of salary cuts, furloughs and job losses. Those who are fortunate enough to have a job still are having to cope with extended working hours and household chores. All these factors have left people irritable and brooding. It is evident that even after the pandemic ends, the mental health conditions brought on by the contagion and their socio-economic impact on people will linger for quite some time.
According to a survey, about 41 per cent of the population in India has been affected by loneliness. Between 33 to 74 per cent of the people have reported psychological distress and over 40 per cent are suffering from depression and anxiety. As India faces a mental health pandemic, it is high time that the State invests in establishing a holistic mental healthcare infrastructure that is not hidden under the carpet of physical healthcare.
However, the one good thing that has come out of all this is that the contagion has put the spotlight back on mental health issues. Before the pandemic struck, mental well-being was largely ignored and people did not talk about it, forget about seeking help. Now, India is more comfortable talking about it. Once the problem is detected, it becomes easy to devise a cure. Vocalising the problem has also given a better insight into things that bother people.
As of now, India accounts for 2.2 lakh suicides each year, as per a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, and work needs to be done from the grassroot level. Beginning with education, the desired outcome of successful treatment can be realised. Given the paltry number of psychiatrists in the country, the Government needs to increase the number of seats for students of the discipline in the already existing channels.
Following the initiation at the educational level, reform and sensitivity need to be brought in at the professional level, too. Given the dismal state of affairs right now, where psychiatrists prescribe medicines at the start of treatment without thoroughly assessing the patient’s condition, counselling requires an intensive revival. Likewise, a structured guideline describing the conduct of the treatment must be in place. It is important to increase the access of troubled people to counselling and mental health centres and doctors. This may seem difficult given India’s poor mental health infrastructure and massive population, but the surge in the number of people suffering right now demands massive efforts nevertheless.
During the pandemic and in the post-Corona world, there is a crying need for mental health insurance, too, so that it is instrumental in relieving the burden of treatment expenditure. The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI) in 2018 asked mental illnesses to be included in regular health insurance coverage. In line with its directions, some insurers have already started customising mental health products but they are few and far between.
Technology can be harnessed to keep mental health issues at bay. Virtual contact can be a means to connect with isolated people. The arrival of virtual consultancy and chatbots has encouraged the masses to seek help. This has helped those who fear being discovered and judged by others. The chances of mental health issues turning into a sweeping problem in a post-Corona world are vast only if they are left unattended.
(The writer is founder and CEO of a mental wellness platform)