Can India afford a brain drain of mental health professionals?

India is a country of 1.4 billion people with only 9000 psychiatrists, about a 1000 psychologists, 2000 psychiatric nurses, and 1000 psychiatric social workers. The gap in the number of mental health professionals and people in need is painfully obvious. But, do you know what makes this crisis worse? The emigration of mental health professionals occurs due to lack of opportunities, low pay and an overall decrepit support system.

The great Indian “brain drain” has spared no industry. Be it the IT industry, health sector or enterpreneurs leaving India in search of better opportunities, India is losing talent like the Earth is losing it’s rainforests. Alas, the mental health sector is no exception. A mind boggling fact is that there are more Indian-graduate psychiatrists abroad than within the country itself.

Who exactly is to blame here though? We can’t expect people give up on exciting career opportunities. We can’t hold them responsible for a grim mental health situation because they did nothing to cause it. Neither can we expect people to settle for low wages and lack of acknowledgement of their skills here in India. The only thing we can do collectively is to identify the problem and try to fix it.

In India, the main reason people don’t reach out for help with mental health disorders or emotional crises is the gruelling stigma attached to it. As a result, we as a society don’t understand the crucial role mental health professionals could play in our emotional wellbeing. The culture of silence around mental health has cost us dearly and it continues to.

Situations like the COVID-19 pandemic expose the true cost of this brain drain and generally low number of mental health professionals available to the people of India. UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is one of the biggest recruiters of Indian psychiatrists. This tells us that the there’s nothing wrong with the crop but the supply-demand needs to be managed better.

There’s no arguing that being a mental health professional is taxing, given the fact they’re at the receiving end of woes day in and day out. This begs the question of the kind support system available for them when they’re burnt out. Peer-to-peer therapy and mental health workshops could do a lot to help. But there’s also a dearth of initiatives that could fund programmes that are beneficial to mental health professionals when it comes to skill-development and building professional coping mechanisms.

Indian psychiatrists have and continue to make a mark in psychiatry in countries like the UK and Canada. They are in high demand and their skills are valued. This reflects incredible well on the Indian mental health professionals abroad and poorly on the mental health system we have here at home.

The mental health situation in India leaves a lot to be desired; inevitably, it trickles down to the kind of support mental health professionals have available to them. It’s ironic that mental health professionals are a scarce and yet undervalued resource.

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