Let’s talk about mental health

Mental illnesses have been treated as being "not real" or more often, as all "in your mind". But they are real, and one merely doesn't "shake out of it". As we observe the month around World Mental Health Day, an useful explainer on its symptoms and what you can do about it.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines Health as “a state of complete physical, mental and emotional well being and not merely an absence of disease or infirmity.” And yet we often find ourselves paying heed only to one of these domains in isolation. Oft-neglected are the domains of mental and emotional well being or rather, the lack of it.

As someone who is a fledgling in the study of Mental Health, I’d like to share my two cents on  Mental Health.

The mental health pandemic

Mental illnesses have been known to humanity since time immemorial. Even the ancient Indian scholars have described mental illnesses in the Charaka Samhita. 

Despite this, mental illnesses have been treated as perhaps being “not real” or “it’s in your mind”! It was seen as something that a person who is weak would develop. So you had to merely, “Man-up!” or “Grit it out”!

But it’s only of late that modern India is waking up to the gravity of mental illness. Be it the rising number of adolescent suicides, people battling various addictions or the growing awareness about depression and bipolar disorder, people are only just beginning to talk about it. And well, that’s good! In fact, the WHO’s theme for 2017 is ‘Depression: Let’s Talk’.

Mental health issues have thus far been shrouded under the twin veils of ignorance and stigma. And unknown to the vast majority, the problem has been growing. Studies suggest that given India’s demographic status – our large young adult population is most vulnerable. And given the dearth of mental health infrastructure, we are perhaps at the tipping point.

It is therefore imperative that we arm ourselves with the right knowledge

How do I recognise mental illness?

Many of the symptoms of mental illnesses overlap with the normal feelings a person might experience over the course of time; may be a month, a week or  sometimes, even a day. For instance, how does one know if some discomfort is a mere heartburn or a prelude to a heart attack? While physical medicine has, over the years, developed a battery of tests (Example: an echocardiogram ECG), mental health still hasn’t found these tools.

And so how does one tell if feeling low is related to that issue you had with your boss last night or is it a sign of depression? When does the line between having a few drinks with friends versus having an addiction, blur?

It is indeed true that it requires many years of training to make accurate diagnoses (yes, psychiatrists themselves need a lot of time with the patient and family to make one; and yes they too may sometimes not pick up an illness in its early stages and may have to revise their diagnosis at a later date.) Yet there are a few pointers that we commonly use to pick up someone who needs psychiatric help:

  • If you find yourself having thoughts of harming yourself in any way – SEEK HELP. ASAP!
  • Low mood persisting for more than  a week to two,  loss of interest in something you previously liked ( meeting with friends/ relatives,  watching a movie, music etc)
  • Sleep disturbances – waking up very early in the morning despite not intending to and while sleeping at your usual time (eg. waking up at 3 or 4 am without a purpose when you would normally wake up at 6 or 7 am)
  • Loss of appetite , leading to noticeable weight loss (without an exercise/ diet regimen)
  • Hearing voices in your head, i.e. hearing the voices of people not in your immediate vicinity
  • For addiction: If your internet addiction begins to regularly interfere with your work ( i.e. not completing an assignment because you spent too much time watching videos on the web)
  • For substance abuse: If you were someone who previously had a drink or two over the weekend but now seem to crave it through the week, or you are thinking about your next drink even while making an important presentation at work etc or the substance has resulted in a physical problem (such as a liver disease)

For a bystander to spot the signs of mental illness the above pointers may be useful . Additionally, if you notice a friend/ family member is:

  • Talking of self harm ( even in a mocking/ self deprecating/ jovial manner)
  • Unusually morose, quiet and withdrawn
  • Neglecting routine hygiene/ self care
  • Increasingly excitable/irritable/ cheerful – more than what would be considered appropriate in any given situation
  • An addiction that is noticeably affecting not only the individual but also others around them

Please seek help immediately!

Frequently asked questions answered

  1. Do I need to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist? And where do I find one?

Mental Health professionals are available in all medical colleges and most private hospitals. And despite the prevailing myth, not all mental ill-health conditions require one to pop a pill. Many can be  addressed by non-pharmacological approaches, counselling being one of them.

Again counselling itself is an umbrella term and each condition requires a different approach. For instance, the approach to a couple who comes with a relationship problem would be very different from an approach that would be used for an individual with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

You can contact either a psychiatrist or a psychologist and they in turn will suggest the subsequent line of treatment.

  1. What causes mental illnesses?

The current  understanding of psychiatric illnesses is that the cause is multifactorial, that is to say, no single agent can be pointed to as being the cause. That said, the eventual illness develops due to a complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors. In other words, an individual might have a genetic vulnerability to a certain illness. Subsequently whether  that individual develops the said illness will depend on their environment (upbringing, childhood experiences, stress etc.)

These factors ultimately result in imbalances in the chemicals in the brain, leading to the various symptoms of mental illness.

However, our understanding is still limited and research is ongoing.

  1. Are mental Illnesses curable?

A vast majority of the conditions are treatable ( vs curable). For instance Diabetes and Hypertension are treatable illnesses, medical science hasn’t found a cure for them yet. So it is with a vast majority of mental illnesses as well. Among mental illnesses too, there are many different types and each will respond differently to treatment ( both pills and therapy).

However, what is important to note is that professional help will certainly alleviate the suffering that an individual is going through.

  1. Are all psychiatric patients kept in hospitals?

No. It was in the 19th century perhaps that persons with psychiatric illnesses were committed to homes/ asylums.

Today,  just like any other illness, a vast majority of individuals with psychiatric conditions are treated on an outpatient basis. Persons with severe illnesses may be admitted in hospitals for a few weeks. But there is a concerted effort to get them back into their routine jobs and integrate them with the community.

These are only a few of the doubts I have come across, but the myths prevailing around psychiatric illnesses are many more.

The way ahead

The way ahead is rocky and uncertain. The disparity between the large number of people who need help,  and the minimal number of mental health professionals is perhaps the biggest impediment. It will be a while before this ratio is rectified. However even if the people in need can access the existing resource, it can make a significant difference. And the first step here is to spread awareness.  The media must be lauded for its efforts to raise this issue and discuss it in the public domain. Celebrities talking about their battles with these issues  will also help shatter some of the stigma.  Although the picture is still bleak, it’s important to know that help is available for those who seek it. One need not go through this alone.

So, as the slogan goes, let’s talk about this!


  1. R. B. Gupta says:

    Instead of suffering alone and not seeking any medical help worsens the situation. One thinks due to attached stigma makes one not comfortable to consult a psychologist even. Instead of suffering alone one should feel necessary to talk to family member, close one or contact helplines which will help because now a days family relationships, stress, loneliness after settling their children one starts feeling life has become worthless, one starts feeling that he or she didn’t achieve anything in life except upbringing and settling children in their lives. The emotions that didn’t arise earlier due being busy in life start bothering for survival of the fittest.

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