Is the World staring At a Mental Health Crisis? A Perspective From a Mental Health Activist

Covid-related mental health issues are a possible burden for everyone. In India, the second most populated country in the world, there are an estimated 130 million people dealing with mental health challenges. In this article we will take a deeper look at how Indians are dealing with this situation. Specifics about mental health in India make this case even more interesting when you come to realize that the number of calls to a toll-free mental health line in just one month has been over 50, 000.

People are returning to their workplaces, coffee shops are serving take-always, and glimpses of hope are breaking through our reality, reshaped now and forever by the impact of the recent pandemic. While most of the world is slowly looking toward a “new beginning”, it’s just now that we will begin to see the actual impact of this pandemic.

Quarantine days were not alike for everyone – there were people serving in the line of duty and others working from home. Regardless of all the differences, the drastic change in routine carried in itself the capacity to cause stress, worry, and anxiety for most.

Neerja Birla
Neerja Birla / Photo: Aditya Birla Education Trust

Does this mean that the mental health curve is likely to see an upward tilt? According to Neerja Birla, Founder and Chairperson of the Aditya Birla Education Trust (ABET) and the Mpower initiative, which launched the above-mentioned helpline, the answer to this is Yes.

In an exclusive interview with Youth Time Magazine, she explains how they handle such a large number of calls and shares interesting data from the calls as well. We will also discuss the best ways to cope with mental health problems and what are some broad principles that one can apply to mental health issues.

During her conversation with Youth Time contributor Gresë Sermaxhaj, Birla looks at, among other things, the bigger picture by combining fieldwork experience with the background of the situation.


Mrs.Birla, only three months have gone by since our latest interview together, however, this has turned out to be a sufficient time for the attention of mental health experts to be turned toward the impact of the global lockdown in people’s mental health. How do you find the mental health situation as related to the recent pandemic? Is the world staring at a mental health crisis? If so, why and how can we cope with that?

I believe we are on the cusp of the biggest global mental health emergency in recent history.  The effect of the Coronavirus pandemic on mental health will be bigger than anything that we have seen before in the world. We are already seeing the impact of the first wave on frontline health workers and patients. Faced with huge workloads, lack of sleep and stress, there have been many reports in the US and Europe of health workers engaging in self-harm or taking their lives. In India, there have been several instances of suicide by people who have tested positive for Coronavirus.

The second wave of impact will be on people who have lost jobs and those who have lost their near and dear ones. However, the most vulnerable in the mental health crisis will be the vast, marginalized populations across the world – the families of daily wage workers, the laborers, street vendors, and landless farmers, workers in the tourism and food business. Most of these people have little or no savings and will be staring at a prolonged period of joblessness.

Even as the Covid19 curve flattens in several countries, regrettably the mental health curve is likely to see an upward tick.

Helpline Neerja Birla
Neerja Birla – helpline / Photo: Birla Education Trust

The first step is for governments across the world to recognize the real and imminent danger of a mental health pandemic. While the world is focused – and rightly so – on the physical health impact of Covid19 and on controlling the pandemic, we must not lose sight of the looming mental health crisis. What is required is an integrated approach that involves government, the private sector, NGOs, and individuals. A massive awareness campaign should be initiated globally to sensitize people to signs of stress, negativity, and anxiety in themselves or their near and dear ones. They should immediately seek help. The key message should be “Maintain social distance but be supportive and watch out for the people around you”.


I am aware that about a month ago, Mpower launched a toll-free mental health helpline to alleviate the concerns arising due to the virus, and so far you have received around 50,000 calls on this helpline. How do you handle this large number of calls, and what does it indicate?

This is an initiative that we launched in collaboration with our State government and the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation, and it has been operational since the third of April. The helpline operates in three languages and is available 24/7. In addition to English, the helpline is available in Hindi, which is the most widely spoken language in India, and Marathi, the language of the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital.

We have received over 50,000 calls, and we are gratified by the response to the helpline. The Mpower team of mental health counsellors, clinical psychologists, and psychiatrists has been working round the clock, many on double shifts, to manage the calls. They have been our frontline heroes in our fight against the mental health fallout of the pandemic.

We have seen some interesting data from the calls. In India, historically an overwhelming majority of calls received by helplines are from urban areas. With the ‘BMC-Mpower 1on1’’ helpline, we are getting a lot of calls from the rural hinterlands.  These calls mostly relate to issues of displacement and family. From the urban centers, the calls have been about anxiety, social isolation, depression, and loneliness. A lot of elderly people are calling in with worries about their children. Hostel students have talked about feeling lonely and trapped. We are also dealing with relationship issues. Almost 60 percent of our callers are men, which is very telling. We are glad that men are also opening up.

Unfortunately, we are also observing that incidents of domestic violence have grown, especially in India’s smaller cities.


Further, I would like to focus on some specifics about India and mental health. How’s the public and institutional awareness of the importance of mental health in people’s lives in the second most populated country of the world? Is a stigma attached to dealing with mental health issues, and how are the people who face such difficulties perceived and treated by society? How is the situation in India comparable to the situation globally?

There are an estimated 130 million people in India with mental health issues – more than the combined population of France and Italy. This number is bound to increase as the country grapples with the pandemic.

Despite the large burden of mental illnesses, only 10% of Indians with mental health problems receive evidence-based treatments. Treatment gaps greater than 70% exist due to insufficient funding of mental, neurological, and substance use disorders. India’s spending on mental health care has consistently been inadequate. India has one psychiatrist for every 300,000 people and one psychologist for every 15,000 people.

Also in India, unfortunately age-old stigmas, prejudices, and fears with regard to mental health still persist. The discovery of a mental illness is often followed by denial and hesitation to seek help. Even though mental disorders can be cured or managed, most people tend to sweep their issues under the carpet and suffer in silence. The good news is that in recent years, we have seen an increased level of awareness about mental health.


Since ‘Kindness’ is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, can you please brief our readers on its relevance to mental health?

Humankind is being tested like never before in this current pandemic. We are seeing manifestations across the world of a new set of fears, prejudices, and suspicions. Kindness and compassion are more relevant than ever before. [… ] The compassion mantra that I would like people to follow should start with being kind to oneself. And then follow up with being compassionate towards the immediate circle of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and the community.


Reckoning that mental health is a very broad and delicate topic at the same time, can you possibly name the few most important things one ought to know/apply when being challenged with mental health issues?

There are some broad principles that one can apply for mental health issues.

Identification of early warning signs and early intervention, I believe, are fundamental to combating the long term and chronic effects of mental health issues. Some of these signs could be subtle and at other times more palpable. This could range from anxiety, nervousness, and forgetfulness to fear, stress, negativity, and depression. If you identify any of these feelings – seek help. Don’t stifle your thoughts and worries inside you. You can talk to a friend or a mental health professional.

You may know people in your circle – friends, relatives, and colleagues who are experiencing these telltale feelings of stress and anxiety. Talk to them, spend time with them, and reassure them. Help them to seek help. Remember, “IT IS OK NOT TO BE OK BUT IT IS NOT OK NOT TO SEEK HELP.”


Click HERE to read more about Mrs. Birla and the previous interview with her.

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