Expert Demystifies Mental Health Challenges Afflicting India

Expert Demystifies Mental Health Challenges Afflicting India

By: WE Staff

Aanandita Vaghani is the Founder and Mental Health Therapist of UnFix. Aanandita’s approach, rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, involves co-exploration to reframe thoughts and positively impact mood and relationships. She speaks to team WE about the state of mental healthcare services and awareness in India.

Mental Health has been a lesser spoken about challenge in India. However, it pervades across all social classes in India. A majority of Indians are still unaware about the basics of mental health and wellbeing.

Psychologist and Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, Aanandita Vaghani speaks to us about the current state of mental healthcare in India. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Wesleyan University in CT, USA along with a Master's degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness from New York University. Aanandita’s expertise allows her to address an array of mental health challenges—from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders. She is also adept at offering guidance in romantic or familial relationships. As a, her work centres around being a co-explorer and helping patients how you think about the experiences you go through, and how you think about them- both of which can positively impact your mood and relationships with others.

In a candid conversation with Women Entrepreneur India, she sheds light on the current state of mental healthcare in India, some of the major challenges faced by India as a nation, the most common causes impacting working professional’s mental health in today’s times and much more. She also talks about the basics of looking for a therapist in India. This is what Anandita has to say:

Reports suggest that 1 in every 5 Indians experiences some form of mental health illness symptoms. Throw some light on how prevalent mental health illness is among the Indian population.

The largest survey on the subject was done by the Wellcome Global Monitor- examining how people consider and cope with anxiety and depression. Surprisingly however, India showed one of the most open views about mental health. In a study that surveyed 113 countries and how people consider and cope with anxiety and depression done by the Wellcome Global Monitor showed that Indians, relative to the rest of the world, are relatively open about speaking about their mental health challenges. However, the challenge is acceptance and treatment of mental health challenges- as the world’s most populous nation, there are a reported 0.3 psychiatrists and therapists for every 100,000 patients.

Although mental health challenges are widespread in India, yet there exists a large gap in basic understanding and empathy. In your opinion has the conversation around mental health issues evolved substantially over the last few years? Where do we need to improve as a nation?

As a country the understanding of mental health interventions remains low. No societal challenge can be studied without context of culture, and in India this means confusing challenges such as schizophrenia for an influence by supernatural forces. In a culture where it is more socially acceptable to speak about physical rather than psychological challenges, in India a lot of individuals suffering with anxiety, confuse anxiety with stomach aches and headaches which are relatively easier to speak about to family and medical professionals.

As a nation, one of the improvements we could make is in compassion for ourselves and others when confronted with a mental health challenge. We still stigmatize mental health which makes people reluctant to engage in help-seeking behaviors due to the fear of discrimination. The seemingly ancient belief that people who have mental health challenges are incapable of holding jobs and forming meaningful relationships. The belief that mental health is a weakness surpasses gender, caste, religion and region. In fact, a WHO sponsored study found in 2011, that 36% of Indians suffer from Depressive disorder in their lifetime, but the societal pressure to be ‘normal’ is one of the biggest barriers to seek help.

A simple change we can make is in our language as we speak about mental health challenges. Instead of speaking as someone with depression as a “depressive”, we can use person first, diagnosis second, language. This could mean tweaking our language to suggest “an individual struggling with depression”. We could incorporate psychoeducation in our school systems, and treat a child’s Emotional Quotient as essentially as we do their Intelligence Quotient.

The availability of affordable and reliable mental health support in India is not quite aligned with the need. What is your take on it? Where is the industry lacking and how can the gaps be filled to make sure that quality support is available to a larger demographic?

I think this problem is more systemic than individual. In our highly populated nation, an economic analysis shows that India has only allotted 2.1% of its GDP toward health expenditure, and only 0.5% towards mental health specifically. I think this points to a notable gap in mental health as an industry. Even with all the knowledge and research, India also needs to expend resources to communicate findings to a large audience. Policy makers need to create systems that address our mental health needs as a society. At an individual level however, educators need to make mental health an everyday conversation, and health care providers need to incorporate mental health checks as an integral part of annual physical check-ups.

As a mental health expert can you throw some light on the most common environmental factors that impact people’s mental wellbeing in today’s day and age?

Evidence continues to show that the rise of social media has led to the decline in mental health among young people.  Social media presents a distorted picture of the world, and is rigged to show consumers what they are likely to watch rather than information that is needed, and helpful. There are not enough tools out there to separate truth from lie, fact from filter. In a world of ‘thinspiration’, we are not able to perceive our body naturally. Women, for one, have worse thoughts about themselves as they view celebrities' bodies and are more prone to developing unrealistic standards about their bodies, often leading to the development of eating disorders. In fact, the impact of social media is so significant, that neuroscientists claim that its usage mimics the chemical reaction triggered by gambling or drug usage- causing an incessant need for dopamine spikes through each like, share or tweet.

Another major factor also influenced by increased social media use, is loneliness. Loneliness and a lack of social connection is at the core of so many mental health disorders. Apart from social media use, it could also be attributed to a lack of accessibility to our extended families. In the past, three generations of family would live in close proximity, however as our world grows more nuclear, the protective impact of family has reduced.

What can working professionals do to alleviate mental exhaustion that occurs owing to tough life in metro cities & high pressure jobs? How can they focus more on their mental well-being while balancing high pressure jobs?

One of the most prevalent concerns I see amongst the working population is burnout. Mental health is akin to a cloak and dagger affair in most organizations. It is unsafe in most companies to have open conversations and acknowledge mental health, let alone using interventions to support employees. Employees' mental health needs to be regarded as a companywide challenge, rather than a ‘them’ problem. Business leaders need to model discussion of mental health challenges to create an environment of trust.

As for employees, we need to get better at recognizing and speaking-up about the signs of burnout such as depleting energy and low motivation, collaborating with supervisors to build a schedule that supports their career growth; utilizing their strengths and creating boundaries between work and home. As I always tell my clients- work is only ONE area of our lives, and in order for the garden of life to bloom, we need to water all, and not just one plant.

Tell us a few do’s and don’ts that people must follow while looking for mental health professionals?

All ingredients of therapy are needed in order to influence lifestyle changes, yet one I think research and personal experience shows as most important is the relationship between therapist and client. This is why I think figuring out your therapist’s values in the first session is key. Some questions to be asked could  be- what their stance on your challenge is, how they plan to treat it, how they might be able to create an environment of non-judgement for you. It is these values that predict treatment success above all. However, some other questions might be- what treatment modality they follow, the experience they have treating someone with your challenges or diagnosis, and the style and structure of their approach. For instance, prevalent areas in therapy today are psychodynamic therapy (studying the role of the unconscious in behavior) and Cognitive behavioral therapy which focuses on the influence of thoughts and emotions on behavior. Most importantly, genuine concern and a non-judgmental environment is essential in therapeutic success.