How can we work towards better mental health as a society?
Proximity bias, psychological safety, toxic positivity – these terms were unfamiliar to the average Indian a few years ago. Thanks to social media and increased discourse around mental wellness during the pandemic, more people are now recognizing these terms and the related importance of mental health more than ever before. From complex terms like these to common but still stigmatized disorders like depression, anxiety and burnout, more and more companies are recognizing the importance of prioritizing the mental health of their employees.
Everyone has a body and a mind that needs to be taken care of. Discussions around mental health can help realize that they are not alone. Although discussions about mental health have become more mainstream and accepted than before, we are still only at the beginning of eliminating the stigma associated with it.
A November 2020 study showed that only 7.3% of young Indians reported mental health problems, compared to the global average of 20%. Does this mean that young Indians only experience a third of the mental problems of their world peers?
More than 30% of young Indians display poor knowledge of mental health and have a negative attitude towards people with mental health problems. In fact, one in five youth has exhibited intentionally stigmatized behavior regarding mental health. Thus, people with mental health problems tend to suffer a double-edged sword – in addition to being victims of discrimination and even violence, they are often perceived as dangerous and irresponsible.
Things aren’t quite so bleak and there is light at the end of the tunnel. A Follow-up study 2021 through 2018 found that 77% and 65% of respondents were aware of depression and stress, respectively, while 50% recognized mood swings. More than double the number of respondents (65%) now think people with mental illness can take on responsibility, up from 32% in 2018. One of the best indicators of the country’s awareness of mental health is that 92% of respondents said they would welcome mental health treatment, up from 54% in 2018.
During the Covid-19 pandemic there has been an increase in mental health issues – due to an unprecedented closeness to death, isolation caused by frequent closures, working from home and illness Everything around us. This has partially played a role in increasing the reach of mental health conversations; however, key issues surrounding diagnosis, treatment and help-seeking remain unresolved.
What steps can be taken to further improve mental health awareness, reduce help-seeking stigma, and increase sensitivity towards those who may be suffering?
The need of the hour is to ensure that a reliable and unified system for monitoring the number of psychiatrists is in place, and also to create systems to deal with the enormous variability in their availability. Across India, some states had good numbers of doctors, while others showed stagnation or even decline in mental health professionals.
For starters, we could attract more young people to enter the fields of psychiatry and clinical psychology. Currently, for every lakh of individuals, we don’t have 0.75 psychiatrists, far from the ideal number which should be between 3-5. It is also disheartening to know that out of 25 million graduates a year, only 700 are graduates in psychiatry. In 2019, we were short by 27,000 physicians, and that number has likely doubled over the past three years, given the effects of the pandemic.
Improving knowledge, attitudes and practices associated with mental health requires holistic efforts from a wide range of actors in India. Interventions should focus on building an advanced understanding of mental illness, addressing entrenched traditional perceptions, and amplifying awareness about appropriate treatment pathways. One cannot ignore the fact that there is a lack of access to treatment due to socio-economic conditions, while treatment can also be costly. Government and NGOs must prioritize the accessibility of mental health care – whether through telemedicine, subsidies or improving availability.
Employers play a crucial role in recognizing and supporting their employees. While half of the world’s population is engaged in some type of work, 15% of working-age adults live with some form of mental disorder, according to the WHO. This creates a significant economic impact due to reduced productivity and absenteeism. The WHO estimates that depression and anxiety will cost the global economy $1 trillion each year.
A recent article published (May 2022) shows this workplace mental health initiatives are on the rise. Companies have explored areas to adapt initiatives to promote mental wellness, improve health behaviors, emphasize work-life balance and build peer support networks. Most of these initiatives were curative and counseling services, which limits the scope of treatment. Good mental health is not simply the absence of illnesses or disorders, it is about being satisfied, well-adjusted and confident. Therefore, interventions must adopt a preventive as well as a curative approach.
It is crucial that mental health be a part of the core policies of every organization and even government. There is an urgent need to delve deeply into comprehensive mental health management, research risk factors in depth, and prioritize mental health interventions in the Indian context. A more proactive approach to mental well-being in the workplace is needed, now more than ever, if we want a happy and healthy generation to transform India.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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