Over the last two years in India, some of the most significant changes in thought and opinion, both positive and negative, were seen on the issue of mental health. Mental health refers to a person’s psychological, emotional, and social well-being. As individuals, we tend to be more focused on our physical well-being. But it is important to maintain a healthy body and a healthy mind as well.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, there was fear, panic, and a lot of confusion. People’s mental health took a heavy toll. The situation in India was not different either. According to a study by Lancet in 2020, there was an increase of 35% in the number of anxiety and depression cases reported in the country. Covid-19 patients often suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress related to the disease. Front-line workers and people in the healthcare system also face issues of stress and insomnia and may face a lot of stigma from their communities. The situation has obviously relaxed these days, but the lockdown days were definitely a difficult period for everyone. The general population also suffered from issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Spending time in isolation or quarantine led to increased concerns regarding suicidal thoughts and suicidal ideation, particularly among the youth. There was increased alcohol consumption and drug use, even as many cases of people suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms were reported due to the sudden unavailability of alcohol and other addictive substances during the lockdown.
While there has been a lot of distress, the lockdown has been beneficial for a fraction of people too. For some, it gave them the opportunity to spend previously unavailable time at home with their family, with work and studies going online.
In India, mental illness has long had a perceived sense of judgment attached to it. Mental disorders are usually not considered a real problem that requires proper medical care and treatment. There is a lot of stigma regarding it in our society. While timely diagnosis, professional help, and therapy can be very helpful for patients with mental illnesses, many are not usually ready to seek the required help. They feel a sense of shame and embarrassment in having to seek medical help. Lack of awareness and education also makes it difficult for people to properly express their emotional distress in such cases. Many are not aware of disorders like PTSD, behavioral and eating disorders. Mental health services may also not be easily available or affordable for everyone. There is a major portion of the population whose mental issues go untreated.
Regardless, the pandemic period has evidently brought a change in the mentality of people regarding this topic. With more people talking openly about their mental health struggles, the conversation around this topic has become more mainstream. Many now understand the importance of opening up and seeking help for their mental issues. They also understand the Importance of supporting those who require help. In a study conducted by LiveLoveLaugh in 2020, 92% of those surveyed said that they would seek treatment and support those who seek treatment for mental illness. This is a definite increase from the 54% who were of this opinion in the same survey conducted in 2018.
The central and state governments have also done work in increasing the general awareness about mental health and improving the country’s mental health services. The Government of India has initiated two major programs to tackle this problem. The National Mental Health Program (NMHP) was launched by the Government in 1982 with the following objectives:
- To ensure the availability and accessibility of minimum mental healthcare for all in the foreseeable future, particularly to the most vulnerable and underprivileged sections of the population
- To encourage the application of mental health knowledge in general healthcare and in social development
- To promote community participation in the mental health service development and to stimulate efforts towards self-help in the community.
Under NMPH, the District Mental Health Program (DMHP) was launched in 1996 which also concentrated on improving public awareness, providing training to professionals, and ensuring early detection and treatment of mental illnesses.
During the lockdown period, the three central mental health institutions- National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS), Central Institute of Psychiatry (CIP), and Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi Regional Institute of Mental Health (LGBRIMH), under the direction of Central Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, started a national helpline with the aim of supporting people with mental health concerns that arose out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is essential that such efforts and meaningful conversations regarding the topic of mental health take place in our society. Everyone should be educated and made aware of such issues, including children. They need to accept that mental health issues are normal. The important thing is to take action and reach out for professional help. A person seeking help for their mental health issues is not inferior or weird, and they require all the support they can get.