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Mental illness in India

The mentally ill deserve more than judgment. Let's work towards breaking stigma.

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My storyteller father has narrated this tale to me. My paternal grandfather (the best storyteller I know) grew up in Kerala, and he spoke about a man from his village who decided to climb a coconut tree. His point was, if Hanuman could fly/ jump to Lanka, he could do so too.

He crashed to his death.

India has the highest suicide rate in South-East Asia (WHO 2016 information), and within India, in 2015, among the top 5 states, 3 are located in South India – Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Among the states, Bihar has the lowest suicide rate. Yes, underreporting is an issue, but it is worthwhile to examine why states with higher education and better social indicators are present in the top of the pack when it comes to suicide.

Given the stigma around mental illness, it is difficult for people to take help on time. Treatment is not exactly cheap, so it adds to the burden especially if they cannot hold a job. What also gets missed is that not everybody responds to treatment well, and they sometimes just won’t get better. For others, debilitating side effects cause problems. Rural India presents its own challenges.

A few pointers around dealing with those with mental illness:

  1. Social support systems will constantly change for them depending on how people respond to crisis. The constant change will bring problems, and the mentally ill have to constantly figure out who remains in their life. Stay kind.
  2. However well-meaning the advice is on “see your doctor”, if you aren’t going to be around for the rest of the journey, stop offering this advice. There are others who are willing to stick around and offer support. Don’t add to the burden of the mentally ill.
  3. Any mentally ill person is way more than their mental illness. Do speak to them on other stuff too. They are capable of engaging and you will be surprised at how insightful they can be. Patients suffering from depression for instance are known to be more realistic in their estimates.
  4. Do not offer layman advice on their illness, especially if they are already consulting specialists. A lack of understanding of the illness hurts everybody.
  5. If you are not a caregiver yourself, do speak to those who are caregivers. They can offer the third-party view that you seek. If you are a caregiver, do stay considerate of the patient’s privacy and self-esteem. There is a lot they are capable of doing. Do not make them more dependent than necessary.

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