A US-based psychiatrist of Indian origin, Meera Narasimhan, has advocated more investments in mental health initiatives in India because depression has become a silent killer like diabetes.

“A country with over one billion people has just 4,000 psychiatrists. The mental health needs should not be ignored and India has to do a lot in detecting mental illness early among its people, both in urban and rural areas,” she stressed.

Dr. Meera Narasimhan, Chairperson and Professor of Department of Neuropsychiatry and Behavioural Science, School of Medicine, University of South Carolina at Columbia, US, in an interview to “The Hindu” here on Friday, called for using telemedicine for rural and semi-urban people to have quick and easy access to psychiatrists/social workers and psychologists at affordable cost.

She felt that despite all the progress made in understanding and treating mental illnesses, unfortunately people still grappled with the stigma attached to it.

“Depression is the second leading public health concern next to heart diseases according to a World Health Organisation report. In the current scenario of spate of suicides and mental depression, prompt intervention and accurate diagnosis are very crucial. Let us recognise that brain is also a vital part of human body,” the psychiatrist, who has won three national awards in the US, said.

There is no point in talking about physical health when people's mental health is at stake due to various factors. “There is no health without mental health. We need to do much more in creating awareness and the governments too need to understand the implications of mental illness and its ramifications on quality of life of citizens, their families and society,” Dr. Meera said.

While depression due to social factors is leading people to commit suicides on one side, there is also a bidirectional relationship between medical and mental illness. She points out that cardiovascular diseases, cancer, stroke and Parkinson's disease also lead to prevalence of comorbid depression among those patients.

The US-based psychiatrist was in Madurai to have informal discussions with experts of M. S. Chellamuthu Trust and Foundation here and psychiatrist C. Ramasubramanian whom she had described as “champion of mental health.'

She has called for more funding allocations for mental health programmes just like what is being done for cancer prevention and HIV-AIDS. “You just can't ignore the connection between mind and body. Unless you appreciate that link, there is no point in being healthy with a weak mind,” she felt.

Important symptoms that a person could be under depression are sleeping difficulty, loss of interest in his works, appetite loss, guilt feeling, poor concentration, low energy feeling and alcohol addiction. If a person has these for 15 days at a stretch, it indicates something is wrong/ impaired mentally and he or she should get psychiatrist's attention.

“Those with mental illness will have 20 years shorter life expectancy compared to others. We also need to sensitise teachers and parents to be able to recognise mental disorder early on in children. It will be effective if mental health is included in school curriculum and every school needs to focus on this aspect,” she suggested.

She is keen to have an association with the Tamil Nadu Government to design projects for strengthening mental health network in the State, and would meet the Health Secretary during her next visit in August.

“There are many issues to be addressed in mental health for people of all age groups. I would suggest a public-private partnership model and a tele-health initiative like what we did in South Carolina in the US. Mental and neurological disorders should be tackled then and there,” she said. The psychiatrist can be reached on her e-mail: mnarasim@uscmed.sc.edu.

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