Beating the Mental Health Crisis

Photo by Fernando from Unsplash

India is at the tipping point of a mental health crisis. This year, events surrounding the death of Bollywood actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, sparked a long overdue debate about this crisis. At the same time, the world is reeling from COVID-19 which only exacerbates the need for mental health support.

At a global level, 1 in 3 people are suffering from stress, anxiety, and or depression during the pandemic. School and college closures have confined children and young people to their homes which has led to their growing uncertainty and anxiety. Children and young people bear the brunt of the pandemic’s mental health impact - whether it is due to being stuck in an abusive home or disruption in their education and future.

Even before COVID-19, it is estimated that 11-31 million young people (15-24 years) in India suffer from mental health problems. Stress, anxiety and depression were the most frequently reported. Yet, only 10% of young Indians have access to formal mental health services.

Why is this? There is both a lack of available services and an overbearing stigma attached to mental health issues. A study in eight urban Indian cities found that 47% of people have strong judgement against people perceived to have a mental illness and 26%of respondents fear individuals with mental illnesses. This demonstrates the need to sensitise and educate individuals about signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and normalise seeking support for themselves or their loved ones.

Where do young people feel comfortable going for mental health support? Besides loved ones and peers, another popular option is the internet. With taboo topics such as abortion and mental health, the Internet becomes an ideal place to seek information and services, providing anonymity, community and options. Over time, young people have increasingly turned to the Internet for mental health support. This has drastically increased with the ongoing pandemic where community services are severely curtailed and digital platforms are easily accessible.

Connecting with others online and challenging stigma. This is one of the primary reasons young people seeking support keep returning to the internet for information, counseling and connection.

With a large underserved population in India and half a billion Internet users in the country, there is potential to reach young people online and drive them to information and services that help destigmatize mental health issues.

To understand the growing mental health crisis in India, Quilt.AI set out to answer a few questions - what are the most pressing mental health issues today? Where are young people seeking support? How are online services engaging young people?

The Quilt.AI team extracted data from 200 search terms and 100 unique posts from public forums. Analyzing trends in search words provide an unfiltered lens into what people are actually thinking (as opposed to what they wish to ‘project’ via social media).

We also analyzed the reach and engagement of 9 most popular online mental healthcare providers in India to understand what they are or are not doing well. Similarly, we explored narratives around 5 mental health campaigns to breakdown how future campaigns can successfully engage young people.

Our findings do reveal worrying statistics, however they also emphasize the Internet’s power to address mental health issues, through e-counseling and de-stigmatization campaigns.

The Mental Health Crisis has reached a Tipping Point

Search results on mental health issues are alarming. There are 11 million searches yearly about depression and anxiety. These are the two most salient conditions, with searches ranging from: what it is and how to self-diagnose to seeking support or treatment.

Every month, there are 267,000 help-seeking searches - a clear indication that people are desperate for help. They may be seeking relief through online support, natural remedies, or self-help tips to deal with distress.

In a year, there is a 52% growth in total mental health related searches. These searches range from people seeking help for mental distress and.or looking to educate themselves on mental health conditions.

Since January 2020, there is an 80% growth in suicide related searches. Suicide intent has spiked in the last 7 months, largely due to COVID-19 impact on feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and upheaval.

What are people facing?

Quilt.AI analyzed and clustered text among mental health sufferers based on the language and content of their posts (i.e. topics, words used) on public forums.

The problem-specific topics that were discussed the most include interpersonal relationships, school and career pressures. This was followed by people seeking coping mechanisms for mood disorders and low self-esteem.

People also found public forums to be a safe space to discuss therapy and stigma around depression. Discourse among people showed that empathy is strong on public forums with many encouraging and receiving support from others.

Another rising concern is suicide. People rarely talk about suicide publicly, but our search data indicates that interest and discourse around it has grown exponentially. People are searching for information on methods, self-harm, and helplines. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are a common contributor to suicidal intent. Searches such as “feeling alone” and “what to do when you feel lonely” followed a similar pattern as suicide-related searches - which peaked in April 2020 during the national lockdown prompted by COVID.

Despite these concerning trends, there are also e-counseling brands that have successfully reached young people such as YourDost and Manastha. Their approaches differ, with YourDost using inspirational quotes to uplift their audience and Manastha focusing on meditation and therapeutic healing.

Moving Forward

The mental health crisis in India is many things. It is worrying, vast, intimidating and much more. But it is no Hydra. It has two extremely specific engines that power it: lack of information and stigma. Quilt.AI’s study sheds light on how campaigns and e-counseling brands can overcome these barriers and effectively engage more people:

1. Dial up content that explicitly speaks to the most pressing issues - interpersonal relationships and schools and career pressures. Organizations can borrow from the language of help-seekers (e.g. from WordClouds below) to engage more young people and address these issues directly.

2. Campaigns and e-counseling brands are most successful when they break biases through messaging around self-compassion and myth-busting. Online content can borrow from this learning by first equipping individuals with the self-awareness to take their mental health seriously.

3. Searches are an entry for people seeking information and support related to suicide. This makes it a key intervention point. Searches suggesting suicidal ideation or intent should be directed to dedicated crisis helplines or avenues for help.

Through our analysis, we have seen time and again that people are looking to beat mental illness on their own. The double whammy of stigma and lack of information leaves them without help.

Quilt.AI’s findings demonstrate how people are turning to the Internet for support and that it has the potential to foster community. People are receptive to digital content on mental health and organizations can leverage this by delivering clear, consistent messaging that is easily relatable.

If people are increasingly turning to online mediums - we must meet them where they are - especially before the pandemic’s impact nudges the tipping point any further.

Watch this space for information on our upcoming Mental Health webinar!