Raising awareness in a worsening mental health crisis in India

Dr Naveen is in regular contact with tribal communities who partly live in remote areas

How an Indian psychiatrist engages to break the stigma

COVID-19 has forced people all over the world to stand still, to stay at home, to distance themselves from stabilizing social environments, to lose job opportunities and to let go of dreams. Some have lost their loved ones, others are on the brink of financial ruin, struggle to feed hungry mouths or have lost all perspectives in life.

The individual narrative of the pandemic hits India in times of a preexisting mental health crisis. With the highest suicide rate among 15-29 years old globally, India is challenged by a worsening post-pandemic mental health status among those that will form the future of their country. While purpose and perspectives in live are cornerstones of mental wellbeing, the main obstacle lies within the stigma around mental health that India’s society still upholds.

Indian’s denial of mental health

In exchange with Dr. Naveen, psychiatrist in a governmental tribal specialty hospital near the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala and consultant around Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, it becomes evident that counteracting the mental health crisis requires an interdisciplinary approach. At the very roots of the issue, Dr. Naveen seeks to break the societal stigma that denies any existence of mental health issues. “You are not sick! Why do you need a mental doctor?” and “the doctor will give you medication that makes you act like a robot” are assumptions that Dr. Naveen aims to refute. According to one societal understanding, symptoms of mental health concerns are generated on purpose by the affected person and serve as excuse to not contribute to unpleasant work. A second conception follows a religious approach whereby affected people are said to be possessed by evil spirits. In any of the two cases, medical treatment does not follow from someone’s mental illness and the patient is either left with societal shaming or in the hands of a faith healer. Here, Dr. Naveen sees demand to raise awareness about symptoms of mental illnesses and the possibilities of medical cure. It is therefore also of personal importance for him to reach out to all communities, impart basic knowledge about mental health and offer his medical expertise – even if this means occasional strenuous hikes through the mountains.

Regular health awareness trainings for tribal women at the Karl Kübel institute for development education – a co-creation between local and MMH specialists since 2016!

Prevention as key in facing the mental health crisis

While promoting knowledge about mental health concerns and possibilities of medical cure are of high importance, preservation of mental wellbeing must be central to the awareness campaign. Especially in a country where less than 6.000 psychiatrists offer their services to more than 1.3 billion people, prevention is key in facing the mental health crisis. Here, Dr. Naveen highlights the effects of alcohol abuse not only on the consumer himself, but on his social environment likewise. He tells stories of pathologic jealousy, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and children that grow up listening to their parents’ considerations of suicide. If for economic failure, sexual disorder, or societal pressure to perform well in school or in a job – suicide has become a societally accepted way to escape the burdens of daily life. However, this is where Dr. Naveen expresses his call to action. Especially the younger generation must learn about the effects of alcohol abuse, about anxiety, depression and sex education. He also emphasizes the empowerment of young women that carry most of the societal expectations and are often left vulnerable to a patriarchic system.

Dr Naveen trains also during the COVID crises (when possible) – because mental health is a huge challenge

Collaborating to raise awareness

According to the motto “only if your mind knows, your eyes can see” Dr. Naveen engages in a campaign to break an old societal stigma and teach basic knowledge about mental health. With our initiative Making More Health (MMH) we seek to engage in a lifesaving campaign against India’s mental health crisis. After MMH offered mental health training sessions for community workers in the past, we will continue working on projects in our community work to raise more awareness even on mental health issues.

Many thanks to all our local partners who help to make these trainings possible, especially to Dr Naveen as a MMH partner for many years already as well as to our people from the Karl Kübel institute for development!

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