In a country like India, people with mental disorders have to fight their battle on two
fronts. One is against their symptoms and their disorder itself. The other is against
the society. An inherently non accepting and judgemental society.
In India, mental health is a term that often goes unused. We have never been taught
to consider it important, prioritise it or take care of it. Almost as though it is not a part
of our existence and well-being. Mental disorders, on the other hand have still
managed to catch our attention. The bad news is that they’re viewed incorrectly.
They are stigmatized due to age old stereotypes, lack of education and of course the
age old saying “what will people say?“
This saying has much more weight in our country than the need for any sort of
reform and acceptance. India lacks the basic knowledge about mental health and
disorders. There remains a strong desire to maintain the same culture.
Even when families see their loved ones struggling, the saying has more importance
than the need for psychological help. Many families who somehow accept their loved
ones, their disorder and recognise the need for help continue to hide this reality from
the world. Why? Because of the very same saying. “Log kya kahenge?”
A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that 7.5 per cent of the
Indian population suffers from some form of mental disorder. Mental illnesses
constitute one-sixth of all health-related disorders and India accounted for nearly
15% globally. Indian government spends just 33 paisa, or less than 1 U.S. cent, on a
mental health sufferer in a whole year.
The treatment gap, which is defined as the prevalence of mental illnesses and the
proportion of patients that get treatment, is over 70 per cent. This means 15 crore
people need medical attention but only 3 crore people are receiving it. While there
are many factors that cause the treatment gap, this article mainly focuses on one
very major factor which is stigmatization of mental health in India.
A study by NCBI revealed that people believed mental illnesses are a result of God’s
punishment for their past sins, lack or excess of sexual desire and unhappiness or
sadness. Some subjects believed that children are not prone to any mental disorder.
Almost 37% of the urban subjects did not know that psychiatry is a branch of
medicine. Such false perceptions about mental health exist due to a lack of understanding.
Mental health is ignored and feared in this country. It is considered a taboo. When it
comes to viewing mental disorders, we believe in two extremes. One extreme is
trivialising it. It is believed that mental disorders are in your head; You can easily
fight it; You don’t need to take help just work on it on your own and just be less
emotional. For a country that actively tries to ignore mental disorders as a real issue,
it sure has a lot of ‘ideas’ on how to fix it.
The other extreme is stigmatizing. It is believing that people with disorders are crazy
and violent. They are to be feared and are not considered a part of a functional
society. They are some sort of a stain on our society and must be hidden away.
The stigmatization and trivialisation takes place due to a number of factors. One of
the biggest factors is that it is believed that mental disorders are not biological. In our
country, only biological disorders receive adequate care and attention as compared
to mental disorders.
A lack of biological basis makes people believe that a mental disorder is not real.
Nobody says “the tumour is all in your head.” But this is all we say when it comes to
mental disorders. This understanding is inherently flawed. Not only is it wrong to only
give attention to problems caused by biology but also wrong to assume that mental
disorders are not a result of biological imbalances.
Biological basis for mental disorders is a lesser known and even lesser recognised
fact. Eric Kandel, MD, a Nobel Prize laureate and professor of brain science at
Columbia University, believes all mental processes are brain processes, and
therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases. It is important to
understand that mental disorders cause and are a result of hormonal imbalances.
Our perceptions and behaviour are heavily influenced by media today. It has become
a very important source of information and socialization. It often is the source of
information for groups and issues we do not recognise or have direct contact with.
This is where a misleading portrayal of any important matter can have a huge
negative impact and can lead to stigmatization. This is exactly the case with Mental
In media representation disorders are individualised. This means that a mental
disorder is seen as a characteristic of the individual instead of a societal problem.
Thus, completely shifting the burden of responsibility and negating any need for
Media tends to portray people battling disorders as violent, crazy or worse, as people
who are completely incapable of functioning on their own, who need constant
attention and help. A very recent example of the same is the recent cover of Vogue
Portugal. “The Madness Issue” is an archaic representation of a person suffering
and it reflects how far we are from understanding the truth and reality behind mental
Media trivialises mental health by portraying that in every movie, in every show the
character with a mental disorder is apparently always open about their battle and
everyone in their life knows about it. This is a false image. The reality is that a
majority of the population hides their mental disorders from the society and pretend
to function as though nothing is wrong. A partial reason for the same is the
Media also glorifies and glamorises some disorders such as Depression and
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, while Eating Disorders are treated as trivial issues.
Eating disorders have a very high death rate and are as alarming as any other
disorder. It is not the media’s place to decide which disorder matters more than the
other. In my opinion, the very concept is absolutely absurd.
A direct outcome of such stigmatization is discrimination. According to the Mental
Health Foundation, nearly nine out of ten people with mental health problems say
that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives.
It can cause a loss of self- esteem. The ones suffering from and battling a disorder
tend to then blame themselves for their condition. This false sense of responsibility
and guilt reduces their ability to reach out and get the help required for their healing.
Stigmatization causes social isolation which leads to lack of support and empathy.
People tend to move away from people with disorders, often cause they consider
them a burden. The dismissive nature and lack of understanding leaves the ones
battling feeling alone. Social support is a major contributor in healing and lack of
support can have dire consequences.
WHO predicts that by 2020, roughly 20 per cent of India will suffer from mental
illnesses. And to cater to this demographic, we have less than 4,000 mental health
professionals. It is essential to unlearn what we have heard about mental health and
disorders. It is imperative to educate ourselves and change this culture that makes
people suffer in silence behind closed doors. It is on us to end the stigmatisation.
B.A. (Hons.) Political Science
Jesus and Mary College