Fighting disease and the stigma

| | in Oped

The mentally ill do not need sympathy or doles. They need to be given a life of dignity and access to sound medical and psychiatric care. Governments and NGOs are working in this direction, but a lot more needs to be done

When life seem overwhelming under pressure from various quarters, we all, at certain time, feel anxious, worried or stressed out. Not many know that a prolonged stress can end up sinking our brain deeper into negative thoughts and behaviour that affect daily functioning.

So, the chances are that common mental illnesses like depression, anxiety/phobias, eating disorder and stress, which we at times take in our stride, might translate into severe mental illness. It can be schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression), clinical depression, suicidal tendency and personality disorder.

However, this can be prevented with timely psychological first aid (PFA), an emerging concept that promotes humane, supportive and practical help to a person in distress. It is the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day to be observed on Monday.

Sadly, in the present scenario, the timely aid is not happening. For, in India, mental health issues are still considered taboo. Those seeking help are seen as ‘mad’ people . There is also a severe shortage of human resources and infrastructure in the mental health sector.

As per estimates, there are only about 4,000 psychiatrists, 1,000 psychologists and 3,000 social workers for the whole of the country. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says there is one shrink for every 3,43,000 people. The reasons are many: Enough efforts have not been taken by the Centre as well the States to ensure there are sufficient experts in the mental health area. Brain drain is common. Psychiatry courses are also not considered lucrative enough by State Governments.

According to a study conducted by the National Commission on Macroeconomics and Health in 2005, nearly five per cent of India’s population suffers from common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

A report published in The Lancet says the burden of mental illness will increase more rapidly in India than in China over the next 10 years; the two countries account for one-third of the global burden of mental illnesses, a figure greater than all developed countries put together.

It said, that despite the rising figures in India, only about one in 10 people with mental health disorders are thought to receive evidence-based treatment.

The percentage is likely to be on the higher side, as has been indicated by the preliminary reports of a  first of its kind national survey by the Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), to  be released by the Union  Ministry of Health on World Mental Health Day. The survey will present the actual picture of the status of mental health disorders in the country.

In this grim scenario, there is still a ray of hope. Helping hands are always there. The issue is being given attention. Actor Deepika Padukone, who has overcome acute depression, has decided to spread awareness about mental illness through her recently formed NGO, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF). Taking a cue, film-maker Karan Johar and rapper Honey Singh too have spoken on depression and how they have tried to over come it, sending message that there’s need to take corrective measures and not suffer in isolation.

An NGO, MINDS Foundation, is working in rural Gujarat, where individuals are encouraged to voluntarily ask for help for mental illnesses. Community education and updates to facilities can aid in this process.

Until the stigma towards and discrimination against people with mental disorders remains, the patient will not get timely care, diagnosis and treatment as envisaged in the Mental Healthcare Bill, 2016, passed recently by the Rajya Sabha. Some are calling it a potential ‘watershed’ legislation.

All eyes are now on the Group of Ministers (GoM) which seems to be taking its own time to clear The Rights of Persons With Disabilities Bill. Job reservations for the mentally ill patients who can and are willing to work, can ensure them a dignified life.

However, experts point out that the views of one of the Ministers in the GoM — that, how can a mentally ill person with schizophrenic, be given a job — undermines the value of all those who are living with schizophrenia or those with mental illness and working.

The Minister must be introduced to the Chennai-based Aasha Employment Project, where people with mental illnesses run stationery stores and even manage a paper cup production unit. Or to the Chennai-based The Banyan, which, under its co-founder Vandana Gopikumar, has since 1993 been an integral part of the chain of care for people with mental illness in the State. The projects have changed the lives of over 5,000 people, most of whom were homeless, by providing services to support them in recovery. Needless to say, where there is a will, there’s a way.

(The writer is special correspondent, The Pioneer)

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