Recognising the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on not just one’s physical but also psychological and emotional health, the government announced a ‘National Tele Mental Health’ programme in this year’s Budget 2022. Touching upon the subject of mental health in recent times, in her hour-and-a-half speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, “The pandemic has accentuated mental health problems in people of all ages. To better the access to quality mental health counseling and care services, a National Tele Mental Health programme will be launched.”

According to the finance minister, the programme will include a network of 23 tele mental health centres of excellence. “NIMHANS will be the nodal centre, and IIIT Bangalore will provide technological support for the mental health programme,” she mentioned.

Worldwide, pandemic-induced job losses, lack of social contact, and anxiety have been some factors that have led to increase in mental health issues. According to Government of India’s National Health Mission, six to seven per cent of population suffers from mental disorders. It also notes that one in four families is likely to have at least one member with a behavioural or mental disorder, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

These families not only provide physical and emotional support, but also bear the negative impact of stigma and discrimination. Most of them (>90 per cent) remain untreated. Poor awareness about symptoms of mental illness, myths and stigma related to it, lack of knowledge on the treatment availability and potential benefits of seeking treatment are important causes for the high treatment gap.

Subhamoy Dastidar, director, AtEase, an inclusive mental health platform for women (cis-women and transwomen) and non-binary individuals, called it “gratifying” to see “mental health get a rare mention in Union Budget”. “This shows the government’s acceptance and concern towards holistic health and not just physical health which has been brought to the fore by the pandemic. The proposed National Tele-Mental Health program will be indeed a strong step towards supporting the mental health and emotional well-being of individuals, families, and society at large. Post pandemic, especially since 2020 mental health issues are no more considered an urban phenomenon but have spread across small towns in India and need to make mental health services more accessible is bigger than ever,” Dastidar said in a statement.

Kamna Chhibber, head, mental health department, Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare welcomed the “much-needed” move. “This ensures that it helps the shift towards normalising conversations on mental health, encourages people to recognise mental health-related illnesses, seek treatment and also remove stigma in the long run. In a large country like ours, we have a significant paucity of experts and accessibility and affordability have continued to be an issue,” she told indianexpress.com.

Dr Pratima Murthy, professor and head, Department of Psychiatry, NIMHANS called it a “fantastic opportunity to reach out to masses”. “This initiative was much needed and timely considering the lack of awareness. It will also help us identify, diagnose, and ensure people are referred to the right places for help,” she told indianexpress.com, adding, “We are looking at the rollout soon”.

Help is available (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

The focus on tele-counselling which makes it open to digital interventions will improve the privacy aspect thereby addressing the aspect of ‘stigma’ that Indians generally have towards mental health, said Narendra Kinger, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, founder, Talk to Me, in a statement.

On how the initiative will also help address the lack of adequate trained professionals, Dr Murthy said, “Considering there are 23 tele mental health centres of excellence, we hope to train more and more supportive professionals including counsellors to reach out to more people and address the gaps.”

Agreed Dr Chhibber, “Going digital is one of the best solutions for these extant problems and this can ensure that over a period of time we can take significant strides towards making mental healthcare a reality for all.”

Ameera Shah, promoter and managing director, Metropolis Healthcare Ltd also hailed the announcement. “Irrespective of age, gender, and occupation, the need for focus on mental health is necessary given the current situation. The National Tele Mental Health programme is a positive step to support national mental health counselling and care services,” she said in a post-budget statement.

In order to provide widespread access to healthcare, the Budget also has a Digital Health Ecosystem platform. This will comprise digital registries of health providers and facilities, a unique health identity, and universal access to health facilities. “This will aid us in saving lives by allowing us access to contextual health information in quick time, enabling faster and better medical response in emergencies, said Prabhdeep Singh, founder and CEO StanPlus, one of India’s largest ambulance network providers.

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