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Tele mental health centres can be a game-changer in mental health care, says NIMHANS Director

Bengaluru (Karnataka): Director of Bengaluru's National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Dr Pratima Murthy on Tuesday hailed the proposal of the Central government in the Budget 2022-23 to introduce a Tele Mental Health Programme, and said that it can be a game-changer in the country. Earlier in the day, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman pointed out that the pandemic has accentuated mental health problems of people of all ages and announced a plan to set up a National Tele Mental Health program in the country and said 23 tele-mental health centres will be launched with the NIMHANS as the nodal centre. Speaking to ANI on the announcement, Dr Murthy said, "People who have milder forms of psychological distress, some basic counselling can provide so much help that tele-mental health centres can be a game-changer in mental health care in the country. In many countries, it has been shown that tele-mental health services can actually bring about a lot of change. They can certainly improve outcomes." "While it is important to understand that this is not a substitute to in-person contact for people in countries who hardly ever reach services, who are poor and cannot simply add the cost of travelling to different places," she added. Welcoming the proposal by the Centre in the Budget, the Director said that it is a step that will reach the remotest parts of the country. "This is a very welcome step that will reach people particularly in remote parts of the country who may otherwise never get any mental health care," she said. Dr Murthy said that a mental survey was done by NIMHANS that reflected that 10.2 per cent of mental issues are diagnosable. "In fact, even before the COVID pandemic, we knew the prevalence of mental health disorders in our community because NIMHANS had carried out a survey on mental health problems and we know that about 10.2 per cent of the population has a diagnosable mental or substance use disorder," she said.She further said that due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the gap in the treatment has increased. "We also know that there was a big treatment gap. COVID as you mentioned, increase the number of people suffering from various psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and so on. It has also made it difficult for people to access services if they had a pre-existing mental health problem," she said. However, Dr Murthy believed that the people have started coming out of the "stigma" of not discussing mental health issues in the last few years and are willing to talk about their issues. "So a stigma is certainly something that has always been there but I think in the last couple of years at least the dialogue around mental health has increased. People are willing to talk about mental symptoms like they talk about physical symptoms more than before and therefore it becomes very important at this time to address this and make it possible for people to talk about their mental health problems and to consult people," she said. Talking about a concern on the shortage of psychiatrists, Dr Murthy said that tele-mental care could be a solution of the problem and can be "operationalized expeditiously". "For the last 10 years we've all been making efforts at increasing the number of mental health care professionals in the country and it has been steadily increasing, but simply given the population of India, there is an acute shortage. So what is the next important thing to do is to train people working in primary health care who are not mental health professionals in the basics of mental health care, to improve undergraduate training in understanding not just physical illnesses, but also mental illnesses," she said. Explaining about the Tele mental healthcare process to deliver basic mental healthcare counselling, the Director said that the people will have trained counsellors who can take the first level of calls related to mental distress. "Tele mental health is a very important step because you will have trained counsellors. They are not mental health specialists, but trained counsellors who can take the first level of calls related to mental distress. They will be under the supervision of the centres of excellence, which has mental health specialists to deliver some basic mental health care counselling to identify people who have severe forms or when acute forms of mental illness need emergency care or in-person consultation and refer them to institutions. So that, timely help can be provided for people who need it in terms of referral," she said. Asked about the probable date of commencement of such teleconsultations, Dr Murthy said that it would start as soon as they receive directives from the government.

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