First, the good news. Recent surveys have shown that mental health awareness in India, a culturally rich and complex nation, is on the rise. This bodes well for the country, especially when you consider the scale of the problem in India— according to the WHO, one in every five Indians suffers from some form of mental illness currently—and the fact that Covid-19 pandemic has escalated the mental health crisis globally. As recently as October 2021, a study in Lancet reported a further 35 per cent increase in mental health problems in India. WHO also estimates that India will suffer economic losses amounting to a staggering 1.03 trillion dollars from mental health conditions between 2012 and 2030.
Fighting mental illness
While awareness may be on the rise and attitudes may be changing, thanks to celebrities like actor Deepika Padukone and tennis star Naomi Osaka talking openly about mental health, combating mental illness on a national level requires tackling several barriers at multiple levels, the first one being the stigma attached to it. Still a taboo subject that makes people sweep the issue under the carpet and suffer in silence instead of speaking out and seeking help, mental health poses several challenges. Those suffering from it typically live in denial. Many don’t even recognize the obvious symptoms. And sadly, in a lot of cases, family and friends are unsupportive.
Another major barrier is the gap in the existing mental healthcare delivery system. Currently, India has 0.75 psychiatrists per 100,000 people, while the desirable number is anything above 3 psychiatrists per 100,000. It is no surprise then that a National Mental Health Survey (NMHS) 2015-16 report revealed that the treatment gap—the presence of mental illnesses and the proportion of people who had access to treatment—was over 70%. The same survey found that nearly 80% of those suffering from mental disorders did not receive treatment for over a year. Mental disorders also place a considerable economic burden on the patient and their family. This is because treatment is not only expensive but also long-term and requires regular follow-up visits for therapy sessions as well as medications.
Changing the mental healthcare ecosystem
In a positive turn of events, India has been gradually waking up to the reality and consequences of mental health. Proof of this is the announcement of the Tele Mental Health Programme, in the 2022 Union Budget, under which 23 tele-mental health centers will be launched with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) as the nodal center. While this is a shot in the arm for the mental health care infrastructure in the country, there is still a long way to go for systemic change to set in. Policymakers, healthcare providers and educators alike must create robust systems including medical colleges to produce more mental health practitioners, increase penetration of psychiatrists and psychologists in clinics, and ensure availability of mental health practitioners for tele consults/online consults in order to address the country’s severely underserved mental health needs.
India accounts for nearly 15% of the global mental, neurological and substance abuse disorder burden (Source: WHO). This is a matter of grave concern—which caused the former President of India Ram Nath Kovind to state in 2017 that India was “facing a possible mental health epidemic”. Not only do mental disorders place a strain on the financial situation of the people affected, but they also diminish the person’s productivity and ability to pursue a long-term career, which in turn impacts the economy of the nation as a whole. In the coming years, mental health will play a crucial role in the economy of the country. This means that the mental health well-being of the entire population of the country needs to be addressed collectively.
Corporate India can play an important role in alleviating the country’s burgeoning mental health crisis—from CSR initiatives centered on mental health to offering monetary support to improve medical infrastructure. But first and foremost, in order to encourage people to take action and seek help actively, there is an urgent need for corporates to focus on normalizing the conversation around mental health. In recent times, there have been a few campaigns that created awareness about commonplace symptoms and the help available—such as Philips’ #KhayaalRakhna on normalizing seeking therapy, Prega News’ Your Second Home campaign that threw light on post-partum depression, Miranda’s #ReleaseThePressure campaign about dealing with exam pressure. Future Generali is one of the few brands (and probably the only BFSI brand) that has been actively and consistently sparking conversations to break the taboo and bring mental health to our living rooms through its campaigns.
The brand’s campaigns such as #HealthInsideOut, which had multiple videos tackling the touchy subject in a humorous manner, #Mind Matters, another campaign that showcased India’s top sport stars unabashedly talking about their personal struggles with mental health, and #UnmaskYourFeeling, which innovatively used face masks to get people to talk about mental health have consistently brought home the fact that mental health needs to be on par with physical health, and therefore, it too needs to be discussed openly.
In 2021, the Insurance Regulatory Development Authority of India (IRDAI) urged insurers to keep mental illness at par with physical illness in regular health insurance coverage. This means that insurance companies too can step in by offering differentiated and innovative products and services to cover costs of tackling mental illness. Future Generali has taken a huge step in this direction by introducing a health insurance cover that includes mental health—FGII’s Health Total Policy offers covers not just hospitalization but also a unique feature in the form of OPD for mental health.
Looking inwards, corporates are also working on several initiatives to address the well-being of their own employees, from team and community-building activities, yoga and meditation sessions, to roping in mental health practitioners for free and confidential tele-counselling services to offering mental health days and holidays to encourage employees to take a breather from the stress of work. Such initiatives have shown to not only elevate the well-being of employees but increase productivity as well.
As an issue that affects over 90 million Indians across demographics and rural-urban divide, mental health has been touted as the next potential pandemic. The way to beat the mental health crisis lies in getting all stakeholders, including government bodies and institutions, NGOs, corporates, and the common man, to come together to tackle this epidemic with a sense of urgency and openness.
The writer is the chief marketing officer of Future Generali India Insurance. Views expressed are personal.