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‘Tackling mental illness begins by lending an ear’

The first and the best way to deal with mental illness is to listen to people stricken by one, experts said at a session on mental health at the 16th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Saturday.

Dr David Spiegel, Willson professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine, and Dr Shekhar Saxena, visiting professor, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, spoke on ‘Mental Health: How to Start the Conversation’.

“People should be open to listening; they do not have to solve the problem, but they should not be dismissive of someone who is trying to express their problems and refer them to a specialist, if required,” said Dr Spiegel.

The most common mental disorders are anxiety and depression.

“Anxiety is when a person feels that the world is overwhelming, and depression is when a person feels underwhelmed. In both cases, however, people often don’t seek help,” Spiegel said.

The biggest challenge for experts is to make affected people come out and talk because of the stigma associated with mental illness that often leads to suicide. It may take years for people to come out, especially in case of trauma, but that should be no excuse to not listen.

“It is very common among trauma victims, especially victims of sexual violence, to stay bottled up for long as they tend to feel guilty and fear the stigma associated with it. Globally 70% have suffered some kind of trauma in their life and 4% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Spiegel.

Saxena said that stigmatisation is global and not just a challenge for India. “It is not going away because our society doesn’t accept that mental illnesses are like physical illnesses and need same type of care. Our society labels them as terrible, wretched and dangerous.”

Less than 10% of people who have mental illness, globally, get any kind of treatment, and even in developed countries only 50% of those depressed are treated.

“If someone says that they feel like killing themselves, it should be considered as a medical emergency. Depression is treatable,” said Spiegel.

To identify the signs, one has to be observant. The red flags that one should look for include frequent mood swings, daily routine getting affected, not sleeping adequately, and changed eating patterns for more than two weeks.

“You also need to listen to your own emotions when talking to a person who may have symptoms because you tend to instinctively know when there’s something wrong. And when talking to a depressed person, you tend to feel angry,” said Spiegel.

Social media is proving to be another source of trouble, especially for youngsters.

“Any media can have various kinds of effects, including social media. Many people may be using too much of social media and World Health Organisation has taken note of it and labeled gaming disorder as a mental illness. In future, social media overuse can be associated with mental illness,” said Saxena.

One has to use his or her own judgment to know how much is too much as what’s more for one person may not be excessive for another.

India needs to invest more in mental health, experts said. “We certainly need more mental health care experts globally and in India. For us to get a mentally healthy workforce, we need to ensure that we don’t ignore the brain,” said Saxena

First Published: Oct 06, 2018 23:31 IST

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