The global COVID-19 pandemic has affected India due to many challenges. One of them is that the country does not perform as good as it could with the healthcare system. India is only achieving 80.7% of what other countries are able to achieve with a similar GDP per capita for the right to health, a report from the Human Rights Measurement Initiative Rights Tracker says. Plus, countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are performing better in a similar low/middle income level. During the pandemic, this reality has worsened due to lacking public health policies which consequently affects medical treatment and mental well-being.
In spite of this current scenario, the World Health Organization highlighted in 2019 that “India has a rich history of successful public health responses”. At that time, the country was preparing following an Influenza outbreak. What the Indian government and its nationals were not expecting was that in the following year, the COVID-19 pandemic would threaten the economy of the nation and worsen Indians’ mental health.
As stated in The Times of India, the COVID-19 safety protocol is challenging because it requires measures that are quite the opposite of what is necessary for good mental health. COVID-19 creates an atmosphere where patients need to be isolated from their support networks. This reality affects the mental health of these very patients as they need to be far away from their beloved relatives and friends.
Moreover, a 2015 study of the National Human Rights Commission showed that under the Mental Health Act of 1987, 89% of Indian states did not have mental health legislation. With the Act of 1987, the national government did not implement public policies such as supporting good mental health treatments. Still, the Act of 1987 was only revoked in 2017 insofar as Indians saw the mental healthcare system deteriorating.
One of the great examples of this is the National Mental Health Survey. It points out that Indians are increasingly in need of medical treatments because of chronic illnesses related to their mental health. The survey highlights that, in 2016, there were more than 150 million Indian people needing treatments for their mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Hence, having access to quality mental health treatments is most essential especially in today’s critical time .
The present context is only a part of a complex reality where mental health legislation historically ignores the specificities of the local traditions. As a consequence, the Mental Health Act of 1987 was inefficient to assure that Indians experienced better psychological and emotional well-being, and be protected from any discrimination under the law. Still, the law was replaced by the recent Mental HealthCare Act 2017 (MHA 2017).
Because of it, India achieved some progress to improve the national perceptions towards mental health. To exemplify, the Mental HealthCare Act 2017 abolished the suicide attempt as a crime regardless of the religious and cultural traditions of the nation . As the MHA 2017 repealed the 1987 Act, it was expected that the country would develop key strategies to especially mitigate the stigma around having a mental illness. However, this did not happen at all, as Indians are still facing the stigma associated with therapy and psychiatric treatment.
According to the WHO, there are also other challenges such as financial limitations. The Deutsche Welle (DW) similarly observed that Indians are more than ever in need of good, affordable and supportive mental health treatment. Although the MHA 2017 law was supposed to have more practical effects such as affordability, it ended up being unable to bring social changes.
With COVID-19 spreading all over the country, the DW reports that mental disorders have increased by 50% among older persons in India since March 2020. This raises the question about what could be done differently if the new law was enforced and if the society had more awareness.
India needs to translate what has been going on across the country into effective measures for quality healthcare. Policymakers and legislators have to observe the current situation as an opportunity to improve policies and laws, so that citizens access mental health treatments without facing any prejudice.