In spite of an escalating number of mental health patients, the subject of mental health illness, is still by and large a taboo topic for several Indians. “World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that globally over 450 million people suffer from mental disorders,” says Dr (Captain) Kushilab Bose, chief of medical operations, Healthspring, a network of healthcare clinics. “Currently mental and behavioral disorders account for about 12 per cent of the global burden of diseases, and this is likely to increase to 15 per cent by 2020.
“Mental illnesses are amongst the most common ailments, and yet are the least understood,” says Dr Jawahar Shah, co-founder of Welcome Cure, a virtual clinic that features over 100 doctors supplying online help. “This gives way to many misconceptions, resulting in misgivings or insensitive attitudes”.
A study reported in WHO, conducted for the NCMH (National Care Of Medical Health), states that at least 6.5% of the Indian population suffers from some form of serious mental disorder, with no discernible rural–urban differences.
Here are some common myths in India that warrant dispelling, and should instead give way to more support, and understanding:
Myth 1: Psychiatric disorders are personal weaknesses or a personality flaw
Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals responsible for various functions such as mood, sleep, concentration. An imbalance in these chemicals (serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine and others) causes psychiatric disorders. The imbalance leads to serious illnesses, with underlying physical and psychological effects, and cannot simply be overcome by will power says Dr Samir Parikh, director, mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Healthcare, New Delhi. Unfortunately, because these mental illnesses don't always have visible physical manifestations, a sudden change in a person's behaviour is dismissed as a flaw in their personality.
“There are 113 laws in India that take away the rights of persons living with mental illness,” says Dr Achal Bhagat, senior consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Apollo Hospital. It’s important to understand that a person is not faking these symptoms. On the contrary, he/ she is acting facing a lot of distress.
Myth 2: Mental health disorders affect very few people
“Anybody and everybody can be affected. Economic status, social background and education have nothing to do with it," says Dr Sanju Gambhi, psychiatrist, Primus Super Speciality Hospital. The National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bengaluru estimates that 20 million Indians (approximately 2 per cent of the population) need professional help for serious mental disorders. An additional 50 million suffer from not-so-serious mental illnesses, adds Dr Shah. People have a hard time accepting that they could be suffering from a mental disorder, primarily because they feel it is a weakness which will be looked down upon by society at large.
Myth 3: Once a psychiatric patient, always a psychiatric patient
“Almost every patient starts his/her session with the same question: If I start these medicines, will I be able to come out of it?” says Dr Jay Shastri from TopDoctorsOnline(also honorary treasurer at Indian Association of Biological Psychiatry). Medicines are not addictive, they are to combat the imbalance of neurotransmitters in your brain, and don’t always need to be prescribed. Mental disorders, just like any other illness are completely treatable. “With early identification, and adequate and timely intervention, an individual with a mental illness can be treated and helped to lead a happier and healthier life,” says Dr Parikh.
Myth 4: Children don’t suffer from psychiatric illnesses
On the contrary, says Dr Gambhi, mental disorders can set in at a very early age. At least 20% of Indian children suffer from some form of mental illness, among which about 5% are serious illnesses, says Dr Shah adding that most parents refuse to accept that their child may be mentally ill out of fear of embarrassment or social stigma. What’s more, mental health problems can't be ‘outgrown’ as most people seem to think, adds Dr Parikh.
It’s important to pay attention to children as they themselves can't explain their frustrations. "Instead they’ll exhibit it by associating it with a physical pain like an inexplicable headache or a stomach ache," says Dr Shashtri.
Myth 5: Mental health disorders are a result of bad parenting:
Parenting has nothing to do with mental disorders. Children hailing from 'happy' families can suffer from psychological complications too. Mental disorders are caused due to multiple interactions of biological, psychological and genetic factors,” says Dr Parikh. However, a support system plays an essential role in recovery. A strong family structure will ensure the right support and care for a child’s treatment and future development, adds Dr Shastri.
Myth 6: Mental illnesses are contagious
"Psychiatric disorders are medical conditions, which are a result of an imbalance in the neurotransmitters in the brain. They are can be genetically passed on, but are in no way contagious. Indians have to understand that mental health issues are never evidence of bad morals. Some patients we see even suspect black magic behind illnesses, " says Delhi-based psychologist Dr Harsheen Arora who specialises in counselling and therapy.
Myth 7: Attempting suicide is a sign of cowardice
According to a WHO report, most suicides in the world occur in the South-Asia region with India accounting for the highest estimated number of suicides overall in 2012. The average suicide rate in India is 10.9 for every lakh people and the majority of people who commit suicide are below 44 years of age. “It is a myth that suicide is usually an impulsive decision or that it happens on the spur of the moment,” says Dr Parikh. “There are many clear warning signals that people contemplating suicide give, that indicate their feelings of helplessness. It should not be considered a taboo topic," he adds. Giving a person the environment to be able to discuss his/ her feeling can actually provide release for pent-up negative emotions, and can go a long way in preventing a suicide attempts.
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