When Devi, a woman in sex work in Madhya Pradesh, India found out that both she and her husband were tested positive for HIV, her life came to a standstill. “I thought the best option for me was death. I bought poison…”
Luckily, Devi did not follow through with her suicidal thoughts. However, this is not the case for many others: every 40 seconds, somebody in the world takes their own life. In India, 1 lakh people commit suicide every year, while 6.5% of the population suffers from mental illness. The suicide mortality rate per 100,000 population in India in 2015 was 15.7. Many of the populations that Swasti works with – such as sex workers and LGBTQ+ groups – are especially vulnerable, due to the high rates of discrimination and low self-esteem.
On July 29, 2017, I attended an event hosted by Make Room India, an organisation that supports social causes across Europe and India. The workshop brought professionals together to discuss mental health in the Indian context. We discussed how lack of awareness perpetuates deeply-rooted stigma, causing many to live in fear and shame. Further, lack of services prevents many from receiving proper diagnosis and counselling they need to manage their condition.
As the issue stands today, communities lack access to services that both educate and offer direct support to those in need. Public health organisations are in a unique position to make a change, by virtue of their ability to reach and engage with vulnerable populations on a large scale. For example, the GenY initiative, supported by Swasti, trains peer counsellors to support LGBTQ+ youth. While the programme’s central focus is on gender and identity, the scope has recently expanded to cover mental health as well, as it became clear that the two issues cannot be disentangled.
While mental health remains a large issue in India, the Make Room workshop showed there are passionate professionals making progress on the ground. In conjunction with these efforts, public health organizations can play an instrumental role in spreading awareness, providing access to services, and potentially cause a radical shift in public attitude.
However, widespread change will only happen when education and outreach is available to those who need it most – like Devi, LGBTQ+ youth, and other marginalised groups. We will know progress has been made when mental illness is not only de-stigmatised, but accepted among the public as a core component of health and well-being.