The government on Tuesday recognised the toll the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has been taking on the mental health of a large section of the population and addressed it by announcing the rollout of a national tele-mental health programme for people of all ages, during FInance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget speech.

“The pandemic has accentuated mental health problems in people of all ages. To better access to quality mental health counselling and care services, a National Tele-Mental Health Programme will be launched. This will include a network of 23 tele-mental health centres of excellence with Nimhans (National Institute for Mental Health and Neurosciences) being the nodal centre and International Institute of Information technology (IIIT-Bangalore) providing technology support,” Sitharaman said.

‘Testimony of govt’s commitment’

Commenting on the announcement, Dr Prakriti Poddar, Managing Trustee, Poddar Foundation, said, “Current direct allocations for mental health are grossly insufficient, taking into consideration that 14 per cent of India’s population lives with some form of mental illness, and there exists a treatment gap of 72–92 per cent. 

“Mental healthcare and well-being are complex and intersectoral in nature, for an effective mental health system, intersectoral linkages must be strengthened and this has been reflected in the Union Budget 2022-23. Also, the launch of an open platform for the National Digital Health Ecosystem which will consist of digital registries of health providers and health facilities, unique health identity and universal access to health facilities is a testimony of the commitment of the government to building stronger health systems,” Poddar added.

Telemedicine has been increasingly acknowledged as a viable system to widen access to healthcare, and in March 2020, the Telemedicine Practice Guidelines were released jointly by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and NITI Aayog. In a document in 2021, the think tank had noted that the telemedicine market size in India was $830 million in 2019. Mental health would now be included in the services provided.

Destigmatising mental health

According to Amit Bose, Co-founder, Emotionally.In, an online mental healthcare provider, “Because of the pandemic, a large percentage of Indians of all ages, all social and economic classes are suffering from loneliness, stress, anxiety, depression and grief related psychological problems. The new scheme will definitely help destigmatise mental health and provide much needed care.

“While the National Mental Tele-health initiative is an important step, as the next step it would be great if the mental health industry is supported by removing GST from all mental health care services, directing insurance firms to bring mental health into mainstream health coverage and setting up premier mental health focussed academic institutions and hospitals. This is just the first step and we’re certain with reforms like this, we’re on the right path to create a mental and emotionally healthy society,” Bose stated.