The Edge

The Drift: Mental Health Alert: 23 IITs, 20 IIMs but only one NIMHANS – Why?

Madhavan Narayanan

Last month, Sunil Koshy, a talented young composer and singer based in Bangalore, approached me to help promote a unique anthem he had composed: “Tumhi Saath Rehna Mere” (You Must Stay With Me). It has been readied for October 10, declared by the World Health Organisation as the World Mental Health Day every year.

I was happy to endorse his work, but more importantly, it set me thinking on how India may have reduced material poverty but may have ignored “psychological poverty” as I might call it. We need to focus now on malnutrition of the mind. There is a need to evolve from Roti, Kapda Aur Makan (Food, Clothing and Shelter) to Sneh, Sahyog aur Sahara (Love, Care and Support).

As the Coronavirus pandemic struck the world last year, children could not go out to play or learn in schools, parents lost their jobs or were cooped up at home — and the mental health pandemic many suffered, as a result, became a shadow of the physical one.  The after-effects and the side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic may last long after the virus has been controlled, much like the agonies of the Second World War or the bloody Partition of India that left people homeless, penniless and above all, mentally shattered.

Sunil’s anthem has been composed in collaboration with Dr. John P. John of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore, India’s finest and biggest institution dedicated to the cause of psychological well-being. The song penned by Sahil Sultanpuri has been released in partnership with the Indian Psychiatric Society.

Ingrid Daniels, President of the World Federation of Mental Health (WFMH), has declared this year’s special day as one that focuses on “Mental Health in an Unequal World” to emphasize what I call psychological poverty. The federation stresses on the lack of investment in mental health and the stigma that people suffering from mental illnesses face worldwide.

Now, do consider the fact that apart from the humanitarian intervention needed to help the underprivileged including those suffering from wounded hearts, minds and souls, there is the fascinating fact of how some people with so-called mental disorders also are geniuses, best exemplified by the Nobel economics prize winner John Nash who suffered bouts of paranoia. Nash’s life was celebrated in the Oscar-winning Hollywood biopic “A Beautiful Mind.”

Any which way, the mentally wounded deserve our attention.  Yet, in India, we have a habit of ignoring mental illnesses or worse still, mocking those who suffer from them — although Bollywood has produced movies such as Khamoshi and Khilona (both interestingly released in 1970) dealing with mental illness. Khilona’s title song has moving lyrics that cry out for love, care and support.  I am also reminded of Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” as a rock classic that looks at life from the point of a mentally afflicted person.

Superstar Deepika Padukone has done a commendable thing by launching her LiveLoveLaugh Foundation to promote mental awareness after recognizing her own bout with depression.

However, we have a long way to go.

Professor Gabriel Ivbijaro of WFMH notes that between 75 and 95% of people with mental health disorders in low and middle-income countries are unable to access mental health services. In India, we have people flocking to tantriks and astrologers and of late (I suspect), beauticians and hairstylists, as a way of alleviating psychological malnourishment and mental illness.

It is now time to change all that.

There are 23 IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and 20 IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) in the country. But there is only one NIMHANS and a chosen few smaller institutions in the same bracket. There is a gym, a doctor’s clinic or a beauty parlour in nearly every middle-class residential area in urban India but psychologists and psychiatrists are few and far between — though there is a new category of people called “life coaches” who offer some proxy psychological services. The less privileged have only quacks and tantriks to fall back on.

In a nation of 1.4 billion people, it is time to think of more NIMHANS- like bodies with emphasis on both psychological as well as other dimensions of mental health — be it neuroscience, medicine, or alternate therapies.

About a decade ago, the then health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad had said the Government planned  to have four more NIMHANS branches — and we don’t seem to have heard much after that.

Why this delay or diversion when it comes to mental health?

NIMHANS is building a new 30-plus-acre campus in North Bangalore, but outside the city, its role has been limited. Dr. John P. John notes that NIMHANS is a rare global institution as it blends various cutting-edge sub-disciplines of both clinical psychology and neurosciences. While having replicas of NIMHANS may be difficult or immediately unwarranted, there is a case to use it as a mentoring mothership to build a national network of institutions to serve a growing mass need for mental health.

We need to raise awareness and budgets alike. “Tumhi Saath Rahna Mere” may be just the beginning of a new movement. I would not mind if Karan Johar makes a light-hearted movie on why it is okay for anyone to visit a psychiatrist or psychologist and lie down to discuss one’s mental problems.

I even have a title for that movie: “Couch Couch Hota Hai.”

Madhavan Narayanan

The author is a senior journalist and commentator who writes and speaks on thought leadership issues in the fields of political economy, governance, business and culture. He has worked for The Economic Times, Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times in a long career covering these issues. He is on Twitter as @madversity

Image source: Freepik

Show More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button