Globally, 10 October is celebrated as World Mental Health Day (WMHD). The theme this year was “Make mental health and well-being for all a global priority”. This is so relevant for a country like ours, which is still at a nascent stage when it comes to mental health and awareness.
Almost two decades ago, when I started work as a psychotherapist, there was a cloud of secrecy about reaching out for help; people only reached out to a psychiatrist or psychologist when they found themselves wrestling with debilitating mental health conditions. Over the last 5-10 years, though, this seems to have changed, with mental health perceived as a continuum. As a result, therapy is being accessed for reasons where the purpose is to improve the quality of life and learn effective coping techniques.
It’s common for people to reach out when they find themselves struggling with a transition: whether it’s to parenthood, working towards being a better partner or a parent, a move to a different country, family dynamics. Clients are reaching out for concerns like burnout, work stressors, uncertainty, impostor syndrome, a continuous state of feeling overwhelmed, anxiety, fatigue, even when they find themselves struggling with purpose.
This shift towards emotional and mental well-being rather than mental illness is crucial. Secondly, a recognition that developmental life stages and even positive events can evoke various emotions and sometimes impact us is allowing more and more people to reach out. Millennials and their struggle with anxiety, burnout, productivity guilt, and conversations around it on social media, have helped people find solidarity and recognise that they are not alone. Gen Z, given the uncertainty it has experienced continuously, is mindfully making a choice to prioritise health and mental well-being. It brings an attitude of openness to their struggles.
In addition, some companies are beginning to recognise how crucial employee well-being and a sense of psychological safety are, both for their teams and the organisation. The setting up of mental health helplines that provide counselling has helped provide access.
Yet we have miles to go before we can build access, awareness and accessibility that reaches people of various age groups, classes and communities. When it comes to making therapy/psychiatric referrals for small towns and villages, we need information that helps us access mental health professionals in every state. If we can work towards creating directories that provide the names of hospitals in every city or state that offer emergency psychiatric care, and a list of mental health professionals, with their educational qualifications, people will be able to get timely help. We need national campaigns on television and the social media in various languages that help people understand what a panic attack looks like, when to reach out for help, and the signs that indicate people need critical attention.
People still reach out to their family doctor when they are struggling with psychosomatic symptoms, panic attacks and other psychological health concerns. If we can work with doctors, hospitals and community centres, we may be able to address concerns at an early stage. As children struggle in cities and villages in light of the pandemic, we need to help them find hope, coping mechanisms and safe spaces where they can feel heard.
The real task is to build conversations on mental health through the year. The WMHD is a reminder that we need to put in resources, energy, time and work towards policies that help us create a culture where it’s okay to reach out for help—and let people know where help will be available. It’s the responsibility of each one of us to try and create emotionally safe spaces and give mental health a good name.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.