Trigger Warning: Contains mention of suicides
Just last week, a metro line was delayed and caused a ruckus among commuters. I saw a lot of restless faces and fidgety hands as they fretted over getting late. The schedule got back on track and the metro moved. Once I reached my office, I instantly opened Twitter to get quick updates on the situation. And there, I saw the reason for the delay in blatant bold letters, “40-year-old man commits suicide at Delhi Metro Station, Trains Delayed.”
I was baffled over how trains getting delayed was the highlight of the headline and not the seriousness of deteriorating mental health in people that is contributing towards the burgeoning suicide rates in the country. The year 2018 alone had 1,34,516 cases of suicide reported.
Moreover, ‘committing’ gives such a wrong connotation to suicides as if it is a crime. It perpetrates the person and fails to shed light on the reasons behind the act.
After some more digging, I found that India still has a valid Section 309 in the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes suicides. This is a direct contradiction to Section 21 of the constitution which provides the Right to Life. Many subsequent cases and hearings in court have rendered Section 309 unconstitutional and cruel to the citizens of the country.
The question that arises from this debate is the preparedness of our country to deal with mental health crises and equip citizens with the skills to navigate the subsequent issues.
Right from the early 18th and 19th centuries, mental health was equivalent to mental asylums and confinement as everyone in India believed mental illnesses were incurable and called for control rather than compassion. It was not till the late 20th and 21st centuries that a susceptible paradigm shift came about with organizations like the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences and the Indian Psychiatric Society started spreading awareness with nationwide campaigns and programs.
Observing the mental health movement in America, I discern certain parallels with the trajectory of India's journey in this domain. In a way, both movements started gaining momentum with celebrities and other famous people coming forward with the struggles to normalize the conversation and sensitize people towards such invisible issues. This led to ordinary citizens mobilizing for their rights and in turn, the government passing legislation to endow people with certain rights in cases related to mental health. Mike Ferrell and Patty Duke are credited with sparking mental health conversations in the West whereas Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan have pioneered candid confessions of their emotional struggles in India.
In the U.S., the passage of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act aimed to ensure equal insurance coverage for mental health conditions. In India, the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, brought important legal reforms to protect the rights of individuals with mental illnesses.
The core differences between both countries and their consequent efforts toward mental health awareness are in the cultural, socioeconomic, and infrastructural aspects of the two nations. While America is more advanced and ahead in terms of development, India is still playing catch up with modern trends.
India is a highly religious and spiritual country. Its mental health movement faces unique challenges related to cultural beliefs, traditional healing practices, and the interplay of mental health with spirituality and religion. Nearly everyone in their lives must have heard their parents' comments on how phones contribute to deteriorating mental health and how waking up early in the morning can help reduce stress. What innocent boomers don’t understand is that they have been waking up early all their lives. So, how is their mental health not a blossoming garden of peonies?
The United States has a more developed mental healthcare infrastructure, with a higher number of mental health professionals and well-established institutions. In India, mental health resources are scarce, particularly in rural areas. After the pandemic, we have seen considerable changes in this aspect because that is when India awoke in a frenzy to find its mental health infrastructure in absolute shackles.
When a virus forced the entire world to halt and stay in a confined place with their families or maybe even strangers, people encountered the often ignored enigma of stress and anxiety. Lost jobs, lack of travel and change of pace, and constant news of death and suicides plummeted the collective spirits of the nation. This is when we saw a rise in digital platforms and startups that offered therapy and counseling services. Seeking help and speaking up about individual issues became more mainstream as everyone came together to erase the stigma around mental illnesses.
While both countries have introduced significant policy changes, the focus and priorities of legislation may differ. For example, the Community Mental Health Act was a pivotal moment in the U.S. mental health movement, while India's Mental Healthcare Act primarily aimed to address issues related to the rights and protection of individuals with mental illnesses.
Unarguably, our country has come a long way and made tremendous strides in spreading the word. But is that enough? Are our efforts in line with the growing burden of mental illnesses among adults and children alike?
We need a larger focus on therapy and counseling-related courses offered in universities and schools. Psychology must be made a mandatory subject in schools so that students, from a young age, can understand the inner workings of their brains and can navigate their emotions better. Furthermore, it will encourage students to take up psychology-based courses and pursue a career in providing mental health services that will eventually help bridge the gap in available resources.
The mental health movements in the United States and India share common goals of reducing stigma, improving access to care, and advocating for policy reforms. However, they also face distinct challenges and priorities shaped by their unique cultural, healthcare, and social contexts. Even though we are a bit behind in the process, I believe we can muster enough resources to bring mental illnesses into the mainstream and view them with the same importance as physical illnesses.