Proximity bias, psychological safety, toxic positivity – these terms were not commonly known by the average Indian a few years ago. Thanks to social media and an increased discourse around mental wellbeing during the pandemic, more individuals today recognise these terms and the related importance to mental health more than ever before. Whether we are speaking about complex terms like these, or common but still stigmatized – disorders like depression, anxiety, and burnout, more companies are recognising the importance of prioritising mental health for their employees.
Everybody has a body and mind to take care of. Discussions around mental health can help realize that they are not alone. Although mental health discussions have become more common and accepted than before, we are still in nascent stage in eliminating the stigma associated with it.
A November 2020 study showed that only 7.3% of Indian youth reported mental health issues, while the global average was 20%. Does this mean that Indian youth experience only one-third the mental issues of their global peers?
Over 30% of India’s young people display poor knowledge of mental health and show a negative attitude towards people with mental health issues. In fact, one in five youngsters showcased intentional stigmatised behaviour towards mental health. Thus, people with mental health issues tend to suffer a double-edged sword – apart from being victims of discrimination and even violence, they are often perceived as dangerous and irresponsible.
Things are not as gloomy and there is light at the end of the tunnel. A 2021 follow-up study to 2018, found that 77% and 65% of respondents were aware of depression and stress respectively, while 50% recognised mood swings. More than double the number of respondents (65%) now believed that individuals with mental illnesses can perform responsibilities, up from 32% in 2018. One of the best indicator of the country’s awareness of mental health is with 92% of respondents who said they would be supportive of mental health treatment, as against 54% in 2018.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an uptick in mental health conditions – due to an unprecedented proximity to death, isolation caused by frequent lockdowns, working from home, and sickness all around us. This has partially played a part, in increasing the scope of conversations about mental health; however, the key issues surrounding diagnosis, treatment and seeking help remain to be addressed.
What are the steps that can be taken to further improve awareness around mental health, reduce stigma around seeking help, and increase sensitivity towards those who may be suffering?
The need of the hour is to ensure that a reliable and unified system of monitoring number of psychiatrists is in place, and also creating systems to address the huge variability in their availabilities. Across India, some states had a healthy number of doctors, while others showed a stagnation or even decline of mental healthcare professionals.
For a start, we could incentivise more youth to enter the fields of psychiatry and clinical psychology. Currently, for every one lakh individuals, we only have 0.75 psychiatrists, far from the ideal number which should be between 3-5. It is also discouraging to know that out of 25 million graduates per year, only 700 graduates as psychiatrists. As of 2019, we were short of 27,000 doctors, and this number is likely to have doubled in the last three years, given the effects of the pandemic.
To improve the knowledge, attitudes and practices associated with mental health requires holistic efforts from a wide range of actors in India. The interventions need to focus on building an advanced understanding of mental illnesses, addressing traditional ingrained perceptions, and amplifying awareness regarding appropriate treatment avenues. We cannot disregard the fact that there is a lack of access to treatment owing to socio-economic conditions, while the treatment can also be expensive. The government and NGOs must prioritise the accessibility of mental health care – whether it is through telemedicine, subsidies, or improving availability.
The Employers play a crucial role in recognising and helping their employees. As half of the world’s population is engaged in some kind of work, the 15% of working age adults live with some form of mental disorder, as per the WHO. This creates a large economic impact due to reduced productivity and absenteeism. WHO estimates that depression and anxiety will cost the global economy a whopping $1 trillion each year.
A recent paper published (May, 2022) shows that the mental health initiatives at the workplace are growing. Corporates have been exploring areas to adapt initiatives to promote mental wellbeing, improve health behaviours, emphasize work-life balance and establishing peer support networks. Most of these initiatives were curative, and counselling services, which limits the scope of treatment. Good mental health is not simply the absence of diseases or disorders, it is about being content, well-adjusted, and confident. Hence, interventions must take on a preventative as much as a curative approach.
It is crucial for mental health to be an element of every organisation’s and even the government’s core policies. There is a pressing need for a deep dive into addressing mental health comprehensively, research deeply on risk factors, and prioritise mental health interventions in the Indian context. A more proactive approach to mental wellbeing at workplace is required, now more than ever, if we want a happy, healthy generation to transform India.