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Who you Callin’ Mental?

Sheetal Kandola


Piso, crazy, mental- these seemingly harmless words, are often used in a jovial way when one of our loved ones are being difficult. On the other hand, depending on how one says these words, they can used to belittle and degrade those souls suffering the most.

The stigma or shame of having a mental disorder in India is still very apparent. An alcoholic is viewed as simply having a “bad habit”, a schizophrenic is treated as a possessed soul under the spell of ‘black magic’ and women who are disadvantaged are often locked away and forgotten in mental institutions. Professor Vikram Patel, co-founder of Sangath, said many equated mental illness with madness.

“I think [for] most people, a discussion even about mental illness is equivalent to a discussion about extreme forms of behavioural disturbance one associates with psychosis, and in turn that implies often being carted away by police and being locked up in a mental hospital,” he said.

While most mental health issues are treatable, widespread stigma against mental illness means Indians who need help often get neither diagnosed nor treated. While the image of mental illness is usually associated with things like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, the most common issues in India are alcoholism and substance abuse.

Due to stigma and misinformation, people in need of help are rarely able to access it. Additionally, despite the huge number of people who require mental health attention, India only has 3,500 trained psychiatrists and even fewer psychologists. That means just three psychiatrists per one million people in India. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that 20 per cent of India’s population will suffer from some form of mental illness by the year 2020. According to WHO, India devotes less than 1per cent of their health budget to mental health. It is not known how many people in India suffer mental illness, however, the country has the highest number of suicides amongst youth in the world. The stigma attached to mental illness contributes greatly to the burden of mental disorders and is a major barrier to recovery.

October 10 is World Mental Health Day, and this year’s theme is dignity. Dignity and conversely, stigma, begins with the way we talk about mental illness and the way we talk about those suffering with mental illnesses. Since mental illnesses are not seen, people tend to attribute disorders to weakness or poor character. In fact, people living with mental illness are strong and resilient; they understand what it means to struggle and fight with life. Instead of out casting and ‘othering’ those with mental disorder, as a global community, individuals must strive to uplift and honour those who are brave enough to face their problems and talk about them; thus, leaders connect with those suffering in silence to feel they are not alone. Open dialogue and discussion, and consequently, awareness, are the only way for humanity to evolve into a more compassionate and empathetic society.

Today, many solutions for mental health focus on better technology and new medication; there is an urgent need to initiate empathy to treatment and in our daily discussions of mental health. Allowing youth and people living with mental illness to be a part of the conversation is a critical step forward in creating a care-giving environment that allows them the individual freedom to take charge of their recovery. The chronic shortage of care facilities, psychiatrists and lack of awareness about mental health issues may be a problem, but reviving the conversation with the right focus presents many opportunities for leaders in healthcare and human rights. Every human being is normal, on the contrary, each is mental in their own unique way, by articulating one’s uniqueness – finding a safe space of expression for it, one can inspire others to find their voice and begin the path of self-realization.


(Addictions Research Group (ARG),


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