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Stress on psychological first aid to save thousands of lives

analysis Updated: Oct 06, 2016 09:01 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
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Women in India are also subject to various forms of stress. It could be due to a hostile home environment, testing work conditions, the fear of violence on the road, the inability to juggle multiple roles. (iStock)

In the list of mental health problems, stress does not feature very high. Yet, if left unattended, it can quite literally kill. About 100,000 Indians commit suicide every year, many others suffer injuries, some become unable to function to capacity due to stress-related factors. In India, the stigma associated with seeking medical help means people suffer the debilitating effects of stress often to breaking point.

Now experts suggest that psychological first aid (PFA) could help a person get over the effects of stress. In India, children are extremely vulnerable to stress, especially at examination time, often driven by ambitious parents. There have been numerous examples of children exhibiting various psychological disorders due to the pressure put on them to get good grades.

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I remember the counsellor at the school my children went to telling me that if she ever raised the issue of help to the parent of a disturbed child, the response would often be that the child was not mad and how dare the counsellor suggest as much. Of course, counsellors are available in elite schools; children in other schools are left to their own devices unless they happen to have an extremely supportive home environment.

Women in India are also subject to various forms of stress. It could be due to a hostile home environment, testing work conditions, the fear of violence on the road, the inability to juggle multiple roles. None of this is taken as serious. Often the person exhibiting symptoms of stress is thought of as acting up. Johns Hopkins and The National Child Traumatic Stress Network among others have manuals on how to deal with this. We have no such thing here.

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Support can come from a relative, friend or colleague, but it is best dealt with by professionals. The symptoms could be a feeling of despair, fatigue, anxiety, an inability to interact normally with others, unusual displays of temper and so on. Eminent psychologists in India agree that depression is still a largely unaddressed area in mental health.

It was only in 2014 that India released its National Mental Health Policy. It was quite a radical move but India spends just 1% of its already inadequate health budget on mental health. There is a severe shortage of mental health professionals, with as little as one psychiatrist for every 340,000 people.

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The policy talks about identifying vulnerable groups which include those with no support systems. This could cover the poor, victims of violence or disasters, orphans, the list could go on. India has a huge number of internal displaced persons (IDPs), persons living with conflict, child victims of sexual abuse, all whom are likely to suffer various psychological traumas.

If this concept of PFA could be incorporated into the national mental health policy and enough support found for it, it could help ward off more dangerous and life threatening mental problems. It would also put stress on the map as a serious mental health problem, which would be first step towards addressing it.

@lalitapanicker