MENTAL ILLNESS: INDIA’S SCARLET LETTER


By Nishad Maggirwar
Staff Writer

1.252 billion people, the population of the ever growing nation of India. With almost 18% of the world’s population residing in India, events that occur there tend to have a ripple effect throughout the world. One of the ripples that occurs in this growing nation is India’s inability to deal effectively with its mentally disabled/ill population. India is desperately struggling with its ability to deal effectively with its mentally disabled/ill population not only because of a staggeringly low number of trained mental health professionals, but also due to the outright neglect and public ridicule that these people receive. Mentally ill patients are the scorned population of India, and are not treated like everyday members of society. These people bear the Scarlett Letter upon their existence in society.

Studies done by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) have reported that 13.7% of India’s population have mental health issues, 10.6% are in a dire mental condition, and 1.9% have severe mental disorders (Yasmeen n.pag). Adding on to these statistics, 54% of the severe disorders recorded were Alzheimer’s disease, and 39% was vascular dementia (Koshy n.pag). Although 1.9% does not seem like a large number, keep in mind that 1.9% of India’s population is around 23 million people, which is larger than many South American and European countries. It is quite hard to imagine every person in a nation such as the Netherlands, with a population of around 17 million people, with a crippling mental disorder such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The treatment that mentally ill people receive in India is akin to a toddler’s wild imagination. Mentally ill people are believed to simply be “pretending” that they are disabled in order to receive attention and special treatment, and are somewhat told to simply “stop doing that”. Dr. Kersi Chavda, a senior psychiatrist at P.D. Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai explains how, “an anxiety-ridden or a depressed patient, is usually given tips like, ‘snap out of it’, ‘go for a movie and you will be fine’, or ‘just cheer up;” (“Mental” n.pag). It is as if mental illness is not even regarded as a legitimate illness, for there is a common conception that mental illness isn’t real but rather something someone brings upon themselves. An unsettling number of people believe that mentally ill people can simply get over their problems and move on (Batra n.pag).

“Tum paagal ho”, or “You are crazy” in Hindi, is what is often bluntly said to a mentally ill patient seeking medical help. Mentally ill individuals in India are often subject to public ridicule and discrimination. While people carelessly throw around the words “asylum” and “paagal” (crazy), mentally ill individuals are very hesitant to admit that they are seeing a therapist (“Mental” n.pag). Tannika Majumdar Batra, a resident of India living with bipolar disorder, explains that, “mental illness is seen as a sign of imperfection, humiliation, rejection by family, friends, and relatives” (Batra n.pag). Unfortunately, it has reached the point where mentally ill individuals in India are not a part of everyday society; they are social outcasts. These individuals often find it near impossible to get an adequate job, as explained by Dr. Harish Shetty, of Nityanand Clinic in Mumbai, who points out that “people are thrown out of jobs if they are mentally ill” (“Mental” n.pag). Perhaps the reason why people are so afraid to admit that they are mentally ill, if it isn’t already obvious or determined by a medical professional, is that this exclamation is what attaches the dreaded scarlet letter onto an individual’s life. The situation of mental illness in India has reached a point where suicide takes more lives than any other physical problem (Batra n.pag).

Among the myriad of social problems in India, ranging from human rights abuses to backwards ideologies that stunt the technological advancement of the nation, the outright neglect to take care of mentally ill patients, the clear lack of facilities capable of providing help, and the social stigma attached to mental disorders are definitely notable social issues. This stigma has given rise to the reality that 80% of people with crippling mental disorders, such as vascular dementia, do not quickly receive any form of care. Many of these people have been sick for over 12 months before finally acquiring low quality medical attention (Yasmeen n.pag).

India is a nation with many medical professionals, but among those medical professionals, there is only 1 psychiatrist for every 400,000 Indians (Koshy n.pag). In addition to this, there are less than 10,000 mental health care takers (social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists) in the entire subcontinent (Koshy n.pag). Perhaps this is due to the fact that mental health is not of importance to India’s health agenda, which is quite surprising seeing as over 23 million individuals are suffering from serious psychological disorders. As a result of India’s rejection of this issue as pertinent, those seeking to pursue careers as mental health professionals are not in luck because there are only 1,022 college seats for people wanting to enter the field (Mascarenhas n.pag).

The future of India’s mental health patients looks grim because as the population of India increases to new heights, the aforementioned statistics are only going to increase unless the nation opens its eyes to the millions of people who are quietly suffering and waiting for some form of medical assistance. A clear example of India’s negligence towards this pressing issue is the lack  of mental health hospitals in certain parts of the country. Six states in the northern and eastern regions of India with a cumulative population of 56 million people, do not have access to a single mental health hospital (Mascarenhas n.pag). To put this into perspective, South Africa has a population of around 53 million people. Those who do not receive medical attention, and succumb to their mental illness, turn to suicide. Due to the lack of helplines and anti-depression resources, suicide rates have been increasing lately. In fact, three to four people in Mumbai commit suicide every day, despite knowing that suicide is a criminal act in India (“Mental” n.pag).

However, there is some light in this darkness since  the District Mental Health Programme (DMHP) is making some efforts to change this morbid reality. The DMHP is a governmental organization under the NMHP (National Mental Health Programme), who are focused on providing mental care to patients in various states across India. The quality of care varies from state to state because different regions in India have different local policies. It is possible that medical attention can be restricted due to restrictions on funding, not enough employment, and low motivation (Mascarenhas n.pag). Adding onto this, 40% of patients seeking medical attention must travel over six miles to get care from DHMP services (Mascarenhas n.pag). When considering the large number of impoverished people in India, this commute will most likely occur by foot.

It is extremely confounding how such a forward moving nation has neglected such a large demographic, and has seemingly allowed suicide rates to increase every year. It is appalling how the Government of India still believes that mental illness is not a legitimate illness, and has not appropriated funds and effort to help suffering individuals. A hospital in Mumbai was described to have its mental health ward located near its most neglected area; the morgue (“Mental” n.pag). The Government of India needs to institute major reforms to its health agenda in order to save millions of Indians from being outcasts, and brining their diseases into the light.

Works Cited

“Are Mental Health Facilities in India Adequate?” The Times of India. The Times of India, 29 Dec. 2014. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Batra, Tannika Majumdar. “Dealing with the Loneliness of Mental Illness in India.” International Bipolar Foundation. International Bipolar Foundation, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2016

Koshy, Jacob. “World Mental Health Day: India’s Mental Health Crisis in Numbers.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 10 Oct. 2015. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Mascarenhas, Anuradha. “Mental Illness India’s Ticking Time Bomb, Only 1 in 10 Treated.” The Indian Express. The Indian Express, 19 May 2016. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Yasmeen, Afshan. “India Needs to Talk about Mental Illness.” The Hindu. The Hindu, 23 Oct. 2016. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Image By: Amen Clinics Photos

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