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Stop discounting mental illness

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Stress and other mental disorders need as much attention as physical ailments, says Dr Vihan Sanyal

It is Mental Health Week and October 10 is Mental Health Day. It is time for us to spread awareness of mental disorders, for survivors to tell their stories, for battlers to come forth and to talk about their concerns, for specialists to share our clinical learnings and help each other grow stronger in our respective practices. It is a time also to reflect upon some of the challenges we face as a society in India.

We are quick to rush to hospital if we experience chest pain, we are ready to pop pills for conditions like high BP, high cholesterol and diabetes.  We are, however, reluctant in seeking treatment for mental health issues. Emotional stress and other mental disorders are a major contributing factor for all of these physical illnesses.

Why are we so reluctant to seek help? Why do we shy away from speaking about mental disorders? Instead of encouraging people to seek help and supporting them, many of us prefer to judge, to label and to belittle people suffering from mental disorders. Why don’t we behave in a similar fashion when it comes to physical health and wellbeing?

We don’t laugh at people for joining a gym or for attending yoga classes, but, we judge them for seeing a counselor or a mental health specialist!

If we go for an annual physical health checkup, then we should also go for a mental checkup. Most mental health practitioners would agree that seeking help early can help avoid many future health complications. At present, we do not have a cure for many of the mental health conditions; however, we are able to treat the illness and prevent further damage from taking place.

Mental health and wellbeing is by far one of the most neglected areas in our country. According to a recent National Mental Health survey, approximately 150 million people in India need care for their mental health condition. The same survey found that between 70 and 92 percent of these cases failed to receive treatment. The World Health Organization (WHO) records India to have the highest number of teenage suicide rates globally.

It is also to be noted that one-third of our population (more than 11 billion people) continue to live below the poverty line in our country. Research findings in developing countries like India have highlighted financial hardship, physical illness (lack of quality health care), lack of education/skill, lack of basic resources, inability to provide for self and for one’s family and unfulfilled desires in life to be major factors which contribute to mental illness and suicide amongst the poor and the underprivileged.

If a primary bread-earner of a poverty-stricken family falls physically or mentally ill, it tends to affect the entire household, leading to increase in stress levels and a range of other mental disorders. It is common for members of such families to resort to violence, substance abuse, petty crimes and prostitution in order to survive.

Lack of medical facilities, lack of skilled mental health professionals to help them, inability to pay fees due to poverty, lack of awareness of common symptoms of mental illness and when to seek help, lack of trust and faith in psychiatric treatment, compliance with treatment and what to do if there is a relapse in the condition—these are all imperative factors for us as a society to consider and to act upon to help.

So what are some of the things we should STOP doing

Stop discounting mental illness.

Stop discouraging people from seeking treatment.

Stop telling people to be strong and to snap out of their condition.

Stop labeling and judging people.

Stop shying away from seeking treatment.

Stop self treating yourself and others by reading information on websites.

Stop seeing mental illness as a sign of weakness.

Stop blaming yourself or others for the cause of the condition.

What are some of the things we need to START doing

Start taking mental illness seriously.

Start encouraging people to seek help.

Start to see mental illness as a medical condition which requires treatment and not something a person can snap out of.

Start talking about mental illness. If you have been helped by a mental health professional, then share their details with your friends and family. If you have come across something which has helped you overcome your anxiety or depression then share your findings with others.

Get a mental check up done from a mental health specialist.

Go for therapy to learn new skills and ways to stay mentally fit. The wonderful thing about psychotherapy is that a person does not need to be mentally ill to see a psychotherapist. It’s about taking precautions, enhancing your life and building resilience to some of life’s stressors.

If you or a loved one is on medication for their condition then they must visit their psychiatrist at least six months to a year to get the condition and medication reviewed.

Have faith in your mental health professional and comply with the process of treatment to reap full benefits.

What are some of the things we are in desperate need of in our country

Acceptance of mental health as a nation.

Increasing our knowledge base and awareness of mental disorders.

Increase our number of mental health professionals.

Become more structured and standardized with our diagnoses of mental illness and with psychopharma interventions

State of the art rehabilitation centres for people suffering from substance abuse.

More mental health hospitals for psychiatric patients.

Mental Health First Aid officers in communities, schools, colleges and in organisations. These members will need to be trained and certified to handle mental health emergency situations like meltdowns and suicide prevention.

Become aware of a range of treatment options which are available to treat mental disorders.

Educate the poor and people with lack of resources about the importance of mental health. Stress that they must comply with the line of treatment to get better.

Make quality care and treatment easily available and accessible to one and all.

There is much to be achieved and progress to be made in almost all aspects of the mental health framework in India. Adaptation of therapeutic techniques to Indian sub-cultures, temperament and cognitive biases needs to be addressed for us to be a step ahead of the challenges we as professionals are currently faced with.

Intensive research and qualitative surveys need to be made by us to learn and grow in this field. We need to focus not only on the pressing issues of suicide and serious mental illness. We also need to pay attention to preventive measures one can take to bring down the number of suicides and increase the overall mental wellbeing of our citizens.

Dr Vihan Sanyal is a psychotherapist.

Short Takes

According to a recent National Mental Health survey, approximately 150 million people in India need care for their mental health condition.

The same survey also found that between 70 and 92 percent of these cases failed to receive treatment.

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