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Why the pandemic is a wake-up call to build India’s mental healthcare infrastructure as well

The tragic death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the gloom of the Covid-19 pandemic have led to much-needed conversations on mental health in the country. Because, as Pershing Square Professor of Public Health at Harvard University, Vikram Patel, writes in his article, ‘A Perfect Storm’, “mental health problems were already a major contributor to the burden of illness in India”, but it “goes unnoticed”.

The pandemic, according to Patel, has put the spotlight on mental health issues in two ways. One the uncertainties that have become a part of our lives because of the outbreak – “ from our personal risk to be infected, to why the country is facing a surging epidemic despite the most stringent lockdown in the world, or when life will return to a semblance of what it used to be, or what news we should believe in, to what our economic prospects might look like” – have caused widespread anxiety.

These, as Patel points out, are rational responses to the extraordinary realities we are facing. However, he says that for “those who were already facing mental health difficulties before the pandemic, these experiences might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back”.

The second fallout of the pandemic could be even more sinister. Patel draws attention to the looming economic crisis and says that the colossal numbers of those likely to be impoverished, combined with the country’s “fragmented mental health care system”, make for a “perfect storm”.

Though there have been significant interventions by telemedicine providers, these initiatives rely on specialists who are scarce in number; the country’s digital divide compounds the problem. Patel sees much more promise in community health workers who, with appropriate training and supervision, can effectively “deliver psychosocial interventions for conditions ranging from autism and depression to drinking problems”.

He says that though there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health problems, one should keep certain general principles in mind.

One should be as aware of mental health as physical health. Two, “sharing one’s mental health story is not only a powerful way to feel better but it’s also the most effective strategy to reduce stigma”.

He then talks of the importance of reaching out to others, “for science has shown that care-giving and community service not only makes your life more rewarding, but also longer”. This epochal event, the Patel says, will pass, as every pandemic has in history. But this opportunity should be used for more investment in mental healthcare.

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