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In the psyche Mental illness is as real as any other disease and there is a growing need for a skilled mental health workforce to address the cause, Dr Prakriti Poddar tells A Varsha Rao

Mental disorder.

Mental health is one of the most pressing problems troubling the country. Be it depression, anxiety, stress or personality disorders, instances of mental health issues seem to be cropping up increasingly on the health map of the country. Dr Prakriti Poddar is a mental health expert and the managing trustee of Poddar Foundation, an organisation that has been working in the field of mental health awareness in the country since 1983. Here, she sheds light on the state of mental health in India, emotional wellness, and more... 

What’s the situation of mental health in the country today? Do we have enough doctors to treat mental health issues?

The data on mental health-affected people is not maintained centrally in India. A report released by the World Health Organisation in 2017, titled Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders – Global Health Estimates, estimated that the prevalence of depressive disorders in India is 4.5% of the total population. As per a survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bengaluru, in 12 states of the country, the prevalence of depressive disorders is estimated to be 2.7% of the total population. India has an acute shortage of skilled workforce in the mental health space. As per WHO, it is estimated that India has 0.3, 0.12, 0.07, and 0.07, psychiatrists, nurses, psychologists and social workers respectively for every one lakh population. The system badly needs a skilled mental health workforce.

Earlier, people used to look down on mental health issues. Is the situation still the same? 

Yes. Mental health and substance use disorders are still significantly under-reported. This is true across all countries, but particularly for those with lower incomes where data is scarcer, and there is less attention and treatment for mental health disorders. At the same time, while the state of mental health issues largely remains worrisome, the situation is improving, as there is increased activity in the mental health space. More awareness is being created. The National Mental Health Policy 2017 has come into effect. Leading inspirational figures and celebrities are speaking out sharing their story on mental health challenges. However, much of the activity is in silos. There is a need for getting these activities together and implementing a collective effort.

What are the most common mental health issues Indians face?

Depression, anxiety-related disorders, suicidal tendencies, work pressure stress in the working class, financial stress in under-served sections of the society, and examination stress in the educational sector are high in India.

How does one identify if he/she is suffering from any mental health issue?

Mental health issues are best diagnosed by experts in the field. One should avoid reading symptoms on the internet and plunge into self-diagnosis. However, there are symptoms that are indicative of a person being mentally unwell. Some of these symptoms include feeling sad for longer periods of time, confused thinking, reduced concentration, excessive fears or worries, extreme feelings of guilt, extreme mood swings, withdrawal from usual/familiar social circles, significant fatigue, sleeping problems, inability to cope with stress, alcohol or drug abuse, suicidal tendencies, anger issues, and changes in sex drive, and eating habits. 

What’s the state of mental health literacy in India?

Although mental health literacy in India is definitely growing, in certain sections of the society, there is a long, long way to go before it is quantified. The prevalence of mental health conditions in India is estimated to be anywhere between 18 and 207 per 1,000. In a cross-sectional study conducted on 916 college students, only about a third (29.04%) of the group clearly identified depression and a marginal 1.31% identified schizophrenia. A report commissioned by The Live Love Laugh Foundation indicated that 47% people were judgemental about those perceived of being mentally ill, with 26% indicating fear of the same. Around 60% attribute the causes of mental illness to lack of discipline and willpower, while an equal percentage share the belief of limited interaction and co-existence between mentally unhealthy and healthy people, lest the former, affects the latter adversely.   

How does one become emotionally healthy?

Emotional health is related to multiple factors but is basically related to managing our own expectations from life and enjoying what life has to offer. Physical activity, right diet, and being generally healthy are the first few factors of being emotionally healthy. All of these factors impact our psychology. At the same time, having support groups in friends, family and peers play an important role in making a person emotionally healthy.

Research has suggested that an engaging, loving childhood makes an individual emotionally well and healthy.

Are mental health issues more common in urban or rural areas? Is it gender-specific?

There is no significant data to indicate whether mental health issues are more common in urban or rural India. Both regions have their own challenges. While rural India has more rigid caste, creed, and cultural barriers and a patriarchal set up, urban India has problems of space, modern lifestyle choices and challenges, and pressures of a fast-paced life.

Gender definitely plays a role with most spaces in Indian society being patriarchal in nature, which result in more prevalence of stigma, threat, depression, and anxiety in women than in men.

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