Mental illnesses will now be covered under health insurance, a step long overdue in India’s progress towards universal health coverage. The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India’s direction to insurance firms to include mental illnesses in their policies in compliance with the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, will be a game-changer on many fronts. Insurance coverage will not only improve access to healthcare but positively influence health-oriented behaviour in people. Most importantly, by making mental healthcare equal to other medical conditions, it will play a big role in reducing the taboo attached to disorders of the mind.
The National Mental Health Survey report of 2016 brought to fore the magnitude of the mental health problem in India. Over 10.6 per cent of the population has a mental disorder; one in 20 suffers from depression.
More alarmingly, nearly one per cent of the population is at a high risk of suicide. Over two per cent suffers from severe mental disorders and is mostly in the productive age group of 30-49 years. The economic burden on families is enormous as they spend between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 a month on treatment, the report said. High healthcare costs, along with social stigma and a lack of awareness of effective therapy, have prevented over 80 per cent of people from receiving treatment.
The medical insurance cover is a progressive move. However, much more needs to be done to ensure the sufferers benefit from appropriate treatment and support systems. Though the district mental health programme is implemented in 517 districts, it suffers from severe manpower shortage.
The WHO reports there are only 0.3 psychiatrists, 0.12 specialist nurses, 0.07 psychologists and 0.07 social workers per one lakh people in India. The government has expressed its commitment to address the shortage of professionals and strengthen facilities. But the change can be brought about only by fast-paced translation of intent into effective action.