South Asia, a group of nine countries including India, Pakistan and Nepal, is home to more than 1.8 billion people. Of this population, between 150 and 200 million people suffer from mental illness. However, the severity of depression and mental health is often overlooked throughout the region, leaving millions without treatment and support. Here are eight quintessential facts about depression and mental health in South Asia and how the conditions are currently being addressed.
8 Facts About Depression and Mental Health in South Asia
- Depression affects 86 million people in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization estimates that almost one-third of people suffering from depression worldwide live in South Asia, making the region home to a large majority of the world’s depressed.
- Mental illness is taboo in many South Asian communities. Professor Dinesh Bhugra, a mental health expert at London’s King’s College, states that the South Asian population carries “a bigger notion of shame” with them than other ethnic populations. South Asian religious and cultural influences often do not consider mental health a medical issue, referring to it as a “superstitious belief.” A 2010 study by the campaign Time to Change found that South Asians rarely discuss mental health because of the risk the subject poses to their reputation and status. Discussing mental health in South Asia has yet to be socially normalized.
- South Asian languages do not have a word for depression. Many South Asians are unable to express the specific condition of depression in their language. As a result, they often have to resort to downplaying it as part of “life’s ups and downs.” This language limitation also makes diagnoses and treatment difficult.
- Depression is a major contributor to global disease. Medical experts have found a correlation between the symptoms of depression and the perpetuation of disease. The World Health Organization has found an “interrelationship between depression and physical health,” such as depression leading to cardiovascular disease. As mental illness rates continue to rise in South Asia, so does the risk of physical diseases and illnesses.
- Postpartum depression in South Asian women is often undiagnosed and unrecognized. The gender of the baby, domestic violence and poverty are all factors that put new mothers at a higher risk for postpartum depression. The stigma surrounding mental health prevents new mothers from receiving any form of mental health care or support.
- Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia have made mental health a “top priority.” These countries, along with a few others in South Asia, have created policies to address mental health on a national scale. The World Health Organization has recently lauded their work and the important step it takes towards normalizing and treating depression and mental illness.
- Non-government organizations (NGOs) have had a positive impact on mental health care. In countries where the government is not willing or able to make mental health a priority, NGOs are providing crucial support to people suffering from mental health issues. NGOs in South Asia have expanded their community-based programs and are providing specialized mental health services. For example, in the Maldives, a number of NGOs are offering rehabilitation, life-skills training and “resilience-building around social issues” to citizens. These efforts have drastically increased the access South Asians have to mental health care.
- Human capital increases when mental health is strong. Although poverty rates in South Asia are declining, the region accounted for nearly half of the world’s “multidimensionally poor” in 2017. Providing mental health care to South Asians is a major step in eradicating poverty within the region. According to the World Bank, strong mental health is a contributing factor to not only the wealth of nations but to the wealth and capital accumulation of individuals.
Improving mental health in South Asia requires not only the social recognition and normalization of depression and mental illness but the continued action of both government and non-government programs. With increased access to mental health care and support in South Asia, the expansive issues of poverty and illness will be positively affected.
– Karli Stone