Mental Health Taboos – The Achilles’ Heel of India

*Knock knock* 

“Who’s there?”

“Mental health” 

“Mental health who?” 

“And that right there, my dear friend, is the problem..” 

Mental health has remained an underrated and undiscussed topic for millennia. It has prevailed through the change of times but has never been accepted or fully understood by society. 

Of late, developed countries have started giving more attention and importance to mental health issues and wellbeing. However, in developing countries like India, mental health taboos persist in everyday life. 

A great nation like India, one with a rich history, filled with resources and overflowing with a working population, has the potential to reach up and touch the skies. The only thing standing in the way is the anchor of mental health issues, the insurmountable weight dragging all progress back down, the plague which has run amok for far too long. 

The buried History of Indian Mental Health 

The history of mental health has been lost to time in India. Studies aimed at uncovering the truth have been carried out tirelessly for years on end, to reveal facts that remain oblivious to most of those who call India home. 

Though largely disregarded until recent times, mental health has been an underlying force throughout the pages of history. From folklore to scientific historic facts, silently but surely, mental health issues have left an imprint in the minds of the people. While this has been largely negative, the narrative is being steered into a positive direction with much effort since the last few decades. 

According to historians, the first mental health institution in India was set up by Mahmood Khilji sometime in the mid-1400s. Located at Dhar, in Madhya Pradesh, it is said to have functioned under the watchful eye of the famous Indian physician, Maulana Fazulur-Lah Hakim. 

At the time, mental health issues were regarded as an evil force. Every plausible explanation was taken into consideration except accepting it as a medical disorder. Some considered mentally challenged individuals to be possessed, others felt they had strayed from the path of humanity and were in dire need of religious guidance.

These stereotypes only aggravated the issue further, resulting in mental health still being a touchy topic in modern India. 

The long reach of Mental Health issues 

If WHO surveys and statistical analyses are to be believed, 

  • 7.5% of Indians suffer from some or the other kind of mental health disorder 
  • This number is expected to increase to 20% by the end of the year, with all due credit to the pandemic 
  • Depression shackles 56 million, while anxiety has a hold on 38 million Indians 
  • 36.6% of global suicides occurring annually take place in India 
  • India is going to suffer an economic loss of 1.03 trillion dollars by the end of 2030 due to mental health issues 

These numbers are off the charts when compared to those of other countries. Mental health issues reach far and wide, enslaving millions of people from across India.

Most of these cases remain undiagnosed. Moreover, many people are not even aware of the different types of mental health disorders that could be affecting them or their loved ones. Depression and anxiety are commonly known ailments, but the possibilities are extensive. 

Some, not so commonly known, but frequently found, mental disorders include eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, paranoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. While these mental health issues can be easily controlled provided that help is sought as early as possible, they can also escalate to a point of no return due to unacceptance, avoidance and neglect. 

The unrelenting grasp of Stigma

When it comes to seeking help for mental issues, the situation in India is alarming. It is estimated that 150 million are in need of therapy to deal with their mental health problems and ensure their well being. However, according to surveys, only 41% of them actively seek help. 

The Government of India adopted the National Mental Health Programme (NMHP) in August 1982 in an effort to rectify the situation. Despite four decades passing by, the scenario has not changed much, especially in the rural parts of India. 

The more developed Indian cities are slowly witnessing a positive change as a result of the numerous mental health movements and campaigns in the last two decades.

While the transition to an inclusive society is underway, the ‘log kya kahenge?’ syndrome continues to lead to self-neglect and the people continue to suffer. 

The stigma associated with mental health is intense, leading to the resurfacing of generations of stereotypes and taboos. This causes denial in mental health patients, followed by hesitance and finally shame upon acceptance of the situation.

The need to preserve the bubble of perfect reality in society has ruined the lives of countless people. 

The pain of the Suffering

Many Indians, particularly the youth, suffer from mental health issues knowingly or unknowingly. The task of processing emotions and dealing with afflictions of the mind without the support of family and friends significantly increases the mental burden. 

The absence of open and safe discussions on the topic often makes those suffering feel all alone in their strife. In reality, however, the truth is quite different. The collective loneliness of the mentally burdened people is making the matter much worse. 

All of this pain, caused solely due to the lack of understanding and acceptance in society. 

In Essence

Compromising the mental wellbeing of the populace leads to an overall decrease in productivity and the happiness index of the nation.

The huge population of India, a strength in so many aspects, is slowly turning into its greatest weakness as mental health problems persevere and degrade the quality of life. It holds India back from the many wonders that the people of the nation can turn to reality. 

The need of the hour is open discussion and brazen conversation; to make some noise and expose the silent killer that mental health problems truly are, which have the power to decapacitate generations of people and progress. 

Let us tackle these mental health issues and taboos for they remain India’s one of the biggest weaknesses, a significant aspect keeping greatness out of reach, India’s Achilles’ heel.

Author: Ananya Manishi

Editor: Simi Sharma

Ananya Manishi

Ananya Manishi


Ananya is an undergrad biotechnology student at Shoolini University. You can find her reading a book, petting a dog or lost in thoughts. Breaking into poetry is her jam and writing, her solace.
She’s always up for a long walk or a long discussion, and tea breaks are just her thing.

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