World Health Organization defines mental illness as a behavioural or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment of personal functioning. It refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders, health conditions involving significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behaviour and distress and/or problems in functioning in social, work or family activities. It is different from mental well-being or general well-being — the terms used interchangeably by people to describe such problems.
The first step, say health professionals, is to accept it as a form of illness and not mask it as a lifestyle issue — something that a recent poster tweeted by the Ministry of Health does. It says: “Depression is a state of low mood that affects a person’s thought, behaviour, feeling and sense of well-being. One must take up activities that keep him or her boosted in order to cope with depression.” The poster suggests walks, yoga, fruits, sleep for eight hours and positive-thinking as remedies for depression.
Such prescriptions are the bane of mental health professionals for they diminish the seriousness of the issue and discourage people from seeking help. Banwat points to the disastrous consequences of leaving mental illnesses untreated. “Mental health conditions are treatable. We are continually expanding our understanding of how the human brain works, and treatments are available to help people manage their mental health conditions,” she says. The key is to get people to overcome their shame and to make others stop treating it as a taboo topic.
Sanjay Sarkar, co-founder and director at Finoux Solutions, a software company based in Mumbai, has set up a counselling group, Therappo, for mental health issues. Sarkar is not a trained professional but his platform has empanelled a group of counsellors and therapists who are trained to deal with problems in the workplace. Therappo offers video-chat based counselling and guarantees privacy, which makes it appealing to employees who are terrified of their condition being found out.
Sarkar feels that the social stigma around mental illnesses is the big reason for the problem having ballooned the way it has. According to him, the Indian corporate sector’s attitude to mental health problems is strangely dichotomous. While it is a huge priority at the CEO-level, the initiatives to tackle the issue are lacking at the HR level, he says.
Other experts agree with his view. Banwat says that she has hit a wall in her attempts to reach out to the HR departments of various companies.
And yet, getting the corporate sector on board is a must-do. Even if the workplace is not responsible for the mental illness, says one counsellor, it exacerbates the problem.
Puneet Manuja, co-founder of a helpline called YourDost that has conducted numerous corporate workshops and training programmes for executives, says that the taboo around the issue is so strong that it stops people from taking any action. “When we conduct corporate workshops and ask a question like ‘how many of you are stressed’, nearly every hand goes up. But ask them how many have sought help and there is barely one,” he says.
Most people who call YourDost do so between 8 and 12 in the night. “Back from work, that’s the time they probably feel the need for help most,” he adds. Many of them worry that they may lose their job and women often stress about an impending marriage that they think might curtail their careers. Manuja says that every young employee wants to set up a billion-dollar company by the time they are 30 and when they can’t, they sink into anxiety and depression.
Banwat points out that everyone gains when companies invest in improved support for employee mental health. “The employee gains, the employer gains, and the economy gains,” she says.
HUL, for one, has been very proactive on the issue of mental health. “We provide 24x7 toll-free telephonic and face-to-face access to counselling to all employees. We also have face-to-face orientation sessions and street plays to break the stigma around mental health,” a spokesperson says.
However, mental health professionals say that this is an exception rather than the rule. Indian companies have a long way to go before they can even spot the way out of the labyrinth of their employees’ minds.