Women’s Day award-winning psychiatrist says media fuels mental health stigma and demonizes disorder


New Delhi: The mental health narrative in Indian media and movies, which has fueled stigma and demonized the disorder, needs to change, according to psychiatrist Thara Rangaswamy.

The renowned community mental health researcher, who is best known for her advocacy for schizophrenia to be added to the list of disabilities in central legislation in 2016, was among 29 high achievers who were conferred President Ram Nath Kovind’s Nari Shakti Puraskar on the occasion of International Women’s Day (March 8).

In an interview with ThePrint, Rangaswamy spoke about the state of mental health awareness in India, the stigma surrounding it, its portrayal in the media and the way forward.

Rural areas in northern India urgently need mental health awareness, services and access to professionals, she said.

“While urban areas are experiencing increased access to mental health services, rural areas are still lagging behind. Although small organizations and government initiatives are operating in the rural south of India, the northern part of the country still lacks awareness, professionals or access to services,” she said.

According to the National Mental Health Survey as of 2016, approximately 150 million Indians are in need of active psychiatric interventions.

Rangaswamy, co-founder and vice-chairman of the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, believes that large-scale government intervention is needed to raise awareness about schizophrenia and other mental health disorders.

She had lobbied hard for the inclusion of mental disability in the Disability Rights Act 2016. She was also responsible for the development of a tool called IDEAS, which is officially used to measure disability in schizophrenia.

“It must be understood that schizophrenia is not due to black magic, but is a disorder of the human brain that causes structural and biochemical damage. The main thing in this disorder is the functioning of the patient It needs to be determined how well they work with medical and psychosocial support,” she said.

Although the policy now offers some form of support for people with schizophrenia at more than 40% severity, family members of these patients need to understand what will help them cope better, she added. .

According to Rangaswamy, the incidence of schizophrenia in India is between 0.5 and 1%. However, for a rural patient, it takes about 8-10 years to be diagnosed and get treatment.

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Change in attitude towards mental health

The psychiatrist, who is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General’s Advisory Committee, also believes that the pandemic has accelerated the change in attitude towards mental health issues in India.

“Even policy makers and politicians have seen that mental health has become a glaring issue after the pandemic. So many studies indicate that there has been an increase in the incidence of issues like anxiety, depression,” she said.

“In urban areas, it is refreshing to see young people coming to seek treatment and talking about their mental health issues. It is a normalizing treatment,” she said.

She also noted how mental health disorders have been demonized and further stigmatized by the media in India.

Stressing the need for a change in the narrative in media and film, she said: ‘It is very important that the media check how mental health issues are portrayed. Criminals with mental health issues are hyped up as “psychos,” and words like that grab headlines. This further stigmatizes mental health issues.

She added: “Even in movies, a trope has been created about how people with mental health issues are ‘retarded’ or unable to function in social settings. With increased awareness, it’s time for a change where movies and media show the real challenges and success of people with mental health issues.

New Honor and Distinguished Career

Speaking of the Nari Shakti Puraskar, the 69-year-old said, “It not only shows the increased awareness of mental health, but also encourages young women to embrace psychology as a field of study.”

Rangaswamy was one of three Tamil Nadu women to be given the honor for his work raising mental health awareness in the country.

Rangaswamy was previously reward the Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK in 2014, as well as the President’s Gold Medal of the same Royal College in 2010.

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