India battles misconceptions on mental illness

Monday, July 8, 2013

NEW DELHI — In rural areas of India, many villagers still believe mental illness is caused by evil spirits angry that the sick person had killed a cow during a past life. So-called therapy, conducted by witch doctors or family members, can include chaining up the mentally ill, chanting spells, poking them with pins, or beating them “to force the spirits out.”

“There’s little awareness that it’s a real illness,” said Dr. Indira Sharma, Varanasi-based president of the Indian Psychiatric Society. “Most people think it’s all a figment of your imagination. There’s still a very deep stigma.”

With a population of 1.2 billion people, India has 4,000 psychiatrists, compared with 50,000 in the U.S., about 4,500 in California alone. But in recent years, the Indian government has increased budgets for psychiatric education and mental health awareness, seeking to curb a sharply rising suicide rate as millions move into cities where they lack the social support they had in rural villages.

A bill awaiting parliamentary action would make mental health treatment a right, reduce doctors’ power to commit patients to psychiatric treatment centers without their consent and forbid electro-shock therapy without anesthesia. It would also decriminalize suicide, provide for patient confidentiality and obligate the government to create shelters and halfway houses for the mentally ill.

With its low number of psychiatrists and limited funding, India plans to emphasize training community-based health workers.

Source: Los Angeles Times (link opens in a new window)

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