The government should use the new mental health law to strengthen primary care

The passage of the Mental Health care Bill in the Lok Sabha, putting it on course to become law and repealing the Mental Health Act of 1987, will potentially help India catch up with the advances made in the field by other countries. India urgently needs to make a transition from old-fashioned approaches to providing care for those suffering from mental illnesses, something that China, for example, has achieved through state-led policy reform. Even the sketchy studies on the nature of care available to Indians indicate that in terms of population coverage the new law faces a big challenge. The country’s grossly inadequate base of professional resources is evident from its ratio of 0.3 psychiatrists for 100,000 people (with marginally higher numbers taking independent private practitioners into account), compared to China’s 1.7. Then there are massive deficiencies in the availability of trained clinical psychologists and psychiatric social workers. Evidently, the National Mental Health Programme has not been sufficiently funded within the health budget; neither has capability been built in most States to absorb the meagre allocation. Delayed though it is, the new legislation can bring about change with its positive features. The important provisions relate to the recognition of the right to medical treatment, decriminalisation of attempted suicide, explicit acceptance of agency of people with mental illness and their freedom to choose treatments, prohibition of discrimination and regulation of establishments working in the field.

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Raising effective primary and district-level coverage of mental health services for the general population, without requiring people to travel long distances to see a specialist and get medicines, should be a priority. Since the base of psychiatrists is low in relation to the need, the use of trained general practitioners as the first line of contact assumes importance. Some studies show many of them are not confident enough with their training to detect, diagnose and manage mental illnesses. With a concerted effort, primary care physicians can be trained to help people with mild and severe problems, ranging from anxiety disorders to depression, psychoses and conditions arising from alcohol and substance abuse. Being able to get professional counselling will reduce the complications arising from extreme stress, often the trigger for suicide. Extending health insurance cover is also a step forward, since out-of-pocket expenditure has risen along with the expansion of the private sector in this sphere, just as for other ailments. The provision in the new legislation prohibiting seclusion of patients, something that is frequently resorted to in asylums, and the general use of electro-convulsive therapy must be welcomed. Modern treatment approaches rely more on family and community support. The new Central and State regulatory authorities should speedily weed out shady non-governmental rehabilitation organisations in this field.

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