Opinion

Towards a changed perspective to combat ‘The Silent Pandemic’

It is the loss of a thing, mostly, that teaches us about its worth. And if that thing is ‘the wonderful gift called life, nothing can be more despairing than that. The glaring statistics of rising suicides in India and the insensitive societal judgments and narratives around it speak volumes of the unawareness and insensitivity around mental health issues in our society. Persons who have attempted suicide are frequently portrayed as feeble-minded, and we commonly hear them being labelled as ‘not strong enough to deal with life’, and ‘not concerned about their loved ones’. But have we, as a society, held ourselves accountable ever? We should. Because the blaring reality in those glaring statistics is that suicides are the collective failures of a society that fails to empathise with the depressed.

The link between suicides and mental disorders is well established. During the course of the raging pandemic, when people were cooped up in their homes and the global prevalence of psychological distress increased, ‘Mental Health’ became quite the buzzword. Thus, mental health issues got substantial and pertinent attention, which wasn’t the case earlier.

Mental health issues transcend the barriers of gender, caste, religion, age group, region, socio-economics, etc. but their treatment fails to permeate through these classes and divisions. The increasingly busy lives that we choose far away from family, family feuds, rising unemployment among youth, failed relationships, physical health issues, loss of a loved one, poor work-life balance, etc, and not to forget the blitzkrieg on social media projecting only the brighter side of life sans its challenges, are some of the causes attributed to rising mental health issues. All this manifests itself in the form of emotional outbursts, irritable behaviour, reduced productivity, alienation, and sometimes even suicide.

The problem lies with the perception of the issue itself. Mental health is not considered a part of health, but is often viewed in a compartmentalised form and is sometimes even thought to be in a different silo altogether. There is also a huge stigma around people suffering from any kind of mental disorder. They are often tagged as “lunatics”, “crazy”, “possessed” and a lot more by society. This leads to a vicious cycle of shame, suffering, and isolation for the patients. People often bottle up their emotions for the fear of being judged and their vulnerabilities being exposed.

Now, why isn’t there a good support system? The straightforward answer is that this is because of lack of awareness. And one of the biggest misconceptions is that sadness is depression. No, that is not the case. A sad person is sad and a depressed person is depressed. The thing with depression is that people who are suffering from depression, do not know what the problem is; and people who are in a healthy mental state to understand the problem, do not understand what depression is.

There are days when people just want to bare their hearts and express sorrow or insecurities, no matter how uncomfortable that is. But what they get from others is ‘Toxic Positivity’. By asking them to ‘think positively and stop being sad’, we are invalidating their feelings. Blaming them for feeling this way, will do more harm than good. One should just listen to him/her with empathy and without judgment. So, the next time we ask someone to ‘look at the bright side, we should experience their darkness first’.

The increasing receptivity about mental health issues with celebrated people comfortably voicing their struggles is a welcome trend. Citing her struggle with anxiety and depression, Naomi Osaka (Japanese tennis player) withdrew from the French Open in 2021. The prolonged run drought has impacted Virat Kohli’s mental well-being which he openly admitted recently. Actress Deepika Padukone is one of the leading stars who is credited with opening up about mental health and breaking the stigma around it. Her foundation, ‘Live Love Laugh’ also helps people suffering from depression and anxiety. These role models will inspire others to recognise and come forward to seek help and attention.

The Happiness curriculum introduced in govt. schools of Delhi till class eighth and the emerging concept of mental health societies in colleges/universities are some pioneering steps.

To fight this silent pandemic of mental health disorders, getting out of denial mode is the first step. Mental health issues should be recognised as early as possible and mental health professionals should be consulted well in time. But consulting a psychiatrist is taboo in India. So, another battle has to be waged against this ignominy. Also, therapy is sufficient in a few cases but some cases need medication and clinical intervention. Again, the struggle for getting treatment becomes more challenging due to the lack of accessibility, especially for the populace from rural and remote areas. The state-run hospitals face a shortage of mental health professionals, while the hefty fees of private mental health professionals and their skewed availability in metropolitan cities make treatment elusive further.

However, there has been a significant disruption in the existing traditional modes of delivering mental health services, such as the provision of tele-mental health services, to meet the huge unmet demand for mental health caredue to the COVID-19 pandemic. In line with this, the central government of India in its recent Union Budget 2022–23 announced the launch of the National Tele-Mental Health Program (NTMHP). The government’s flagship scheme Ayushman Bharat-PMJAY also provides coverage for mental disorders, but the private hospitals, which provide a huge chunk of mental health care services, have been kept out of its purview. Thus, much work remains to be done and concerted efforts are needed from successive governments, policymakers, health bodies, NGOs, and society to achieve the idea of a mentally healthy population which is a sine qua non for ensuring productivity in the economy.

A healthy mind is a precedent for a healthy body. Mental health issues, like other physical ailments, are very much curable. We need not stigmatise them, but rather should talk openly about them. Society needs to become more empathetic, and it is high time that our education system prioritises mental health education. Budgetary allocation for mental health infrastructure should be enhanced and adequate resources should be earmarked for it. Only then we will be able to make the world a better place, where people live, love, and laugh from the bottom of their hearts.

 

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Tanu Sharma

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