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Is India Finally Waking up to Mental Illness?

According to latest figures provided by the health ministry, India has a mere 4,500 psychiatrists.

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Ignorance, stigma and lack of doctors have long marred mental healthcare in India. But with stressful lifestyles and ever increasing cases of depression, this much neglected segment is now gaining importance in the country's medical scenario.

According to an estimate by the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression will become the second largest illness in terms of morbidity in another decade. It already affects one out of every five women and one in every 12 men.

"Social awakening towards mental diseases and their cure has finally started to come," Anindita Paul, director of Sanjivini Society for Mental Health, said.

"In terms of the urban society, there is lot of awakening which is coming now. Still as a country a lot more needs to be done," says Paul.

Globally, mental disorders account for 13 percent of the burden of diseases. In India, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the prevalence of schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder, is prevalent among 1.1 percent of the total population while the overall lifetime prevalence rate of mental disorders is 10-12 percent.

While the government has a separate programme for mental health, the segment is marred by lack of adequate doctors and infrastructure.

According to latest figures provided by the health ministry, India has a mere 4,500 psychiatrists.

National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) member P.C. Sharma says lack of proper care for mental patients is a major cause of concern.

"In today's world, everyone is living under constant stress. Still we have just 40 major mental health institutes," Sharma said.

Sharma said he had personally called the chief of the Medical Council of India and requested him to consider making psychiatry compulsory for all medical students.

"The mental institutions are in a pathetic condition and the common perception is that these are 'mad houses'," he says.

Paul agrees, but adds that the perspective is changing. "More rehabilitation centres are coming up, but the government needs to take up major steps," she says.

The WHO preamble states that "health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity", suggesting there is no health without mental health.

Stress is seen as a major cause of worry as far as mental health is concerned, with studies showing a constant increase in stress, especially in urban population.

The WHO, in its 130th session of its executive board, adopted a resolution on 'Global Burden of Mental Disorders and the need for a comprehensive, coordinated response from health and social sectors at the country level'.

The draft resolution in the matter was moved by India Jan 20.

Sanjivini runs counselling centres, a rehabilitation centre and group consultations for those suffering from mental problems ranging from stress, depression, social problems to severe mental illness. According to figures tabulated by the organisation, of all the patients who have come to them in the last nine years, some 19 percent came to discuss issues pertaining to problems with people around them.

Another 17 percent came to discuss their marital issues, 15 percent for problems related to their personality, 18 percent suffered from different mental ailments while one percent had suicidal tendencies.

Statistics also show women are more vulnerable to mental health-related problems as compared to men. Some 57 percent of the patients in the last nine years have been women.

In 1982, India launched a special National Mental Health Programme to ensure the availability of minimum mental healthcare, encourage application of mental health knowledge in general healthcare and in social development and to promote community participation in mental health service.

"We are still somewhere in the middle of totally destigmatising mental illness. There is a need to understand that mental patients can be treated and can lead a normal life again," Paul said.

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Health | Life | Bigger India | February 2012

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