Mental health: Cause for concern

The findings of a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on the state of mental health in the country should cause serious concern as they show that the situation is dire. The study, commissioned by the government and now published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, says that one in seven persons in India suffered from mental disorders of varying severity in 2017. It is the first comprehensive study since 1990 and it showed that the disease burden has doubled in these years. The most common ailments are depression and anxiety disorders, but there is a high incidence of schizophrenia, bipolar problems and developmental disabilities. Social, economic, family and personal factors and lifestyle issues have a bearing on mental health. The study is useful in devising strategies to tackle the challenges, as it provides insights, like the greater prevalence of childhood and adolescent mental disorders in the less developed northern states and of adulthood disorders in the southern states. 

Though some of the increased incidence may be accounted for by better reporting and improved diagnostic services, that does not detract from the need to take effective steps to address the problem. More than one-third of the disorders are related to depression, followed by those caused by anxiety. These disorders are associated with the suicide rate, too, which remains high in the country. The problem is all the more serious because mental health gets low priority in India. The public health expenditure in the country is a low 1.3% of the GDP, while it is 8% in the US and over 3% in China. Just 0.16% of that expenditure goes for mental health. The allocation in the last budget was just Rs 50 crore, which is not enough to set up even one well-equipped hospital. There are only three psychiatrists for every one million people and the number of supporting staff is very inadequate.

Mental health services must be improved across the country by increasing the number of psychiatrists, psychologists and other skilled staff, creating better infrastructure and more facilities. There is social stigma and prejudice connected with mental diseases and these need to be countered with public awareness campaigns. It should be ensured that everyone who needs medical care should have access to it. The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, is aimed at protecting the rights of those who need assistance, but most people are not aware of it. Women and elderly persons need special attention, because they are more vulnerable and are likely to suffer more discrimination. The study shows that the challenge of mental ailments is more serious than most other health issues. 

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