How Training Primary Care Physicians Can Address the Mental Health Treatment Gap in India

Integrating mental health within primary healthcare systems can ensure holistic care and treatment for patients.

Over the last few years, India has made significant strides in building mental health awareness and reducing the stigma related to mental illness. However, with a 2017 WHO report estimating that India has only 25,312* mental health professionals tasked with serving its 1.3 billion people, there are several other interventions (in addition to awareness building and stigma reduction), that can address the mental health care-gap in India. While on the one hand, there is a need for mental health education at scale, there is also a need to address the shortage of training programs and trained personnel. 

Primary care physicians or doctors are often sought by individuals and families for treatment of different conditions. These doctors rarely have the training required to identify and manage mental illness. However, with access to the right knowledge, their interventions can be more effective and lower the burden on the country’s substantially under-resourced mental healthcare system. 

A host of other factors also make training doctors to treat common mental disorders a common-sense decision.

As a decentralised system providing comprehensive, accessible, and affordable healthcare to communities, primary healthcare often enjoys the trust and respect of the people it serves. General physicians are the backbone of this framework, and training them in mental health treatment modalities has many advantages, some of which include:

  1. 1. Early intervention: Patients are likely to feel more comfortable approaching their primary care physicians instead of mental health professionals. A primary care physician can help in the early identification of mental health conditions and educate patients about their condition.

  2. 2. Increased and easier access: Mobilising the primary care network can provide an exponential increase in mental health service access and coverage.

  3. 3. Improved patient outcomes: At least 40% of people who consult their physicians, have significant psychiatric comorbidity. Treating psychiatric comorbidity will improve outcomes in various physical conditions such as diabetes or hypertension. 

Once trained, physicians can play an essential role in detecting, diagnosing, and treating common mental disorders. Besides equipping them with a broader skillset and providing the community with an avenue for mental health assistance, this solution also reduces the burden on existing mental health professionals, especially psychiatrists. Countries would do well to include mental health as part of primary healthcare systems, ensuring holistic care and treatment for their people. 

Building India's primary healthcare system as the first line of defence for all illnesses, including mental illness, is an important intervention with potential for huge impact. Placing mental wellbeing on the same platform as physical health also sends out a message that health is a function of several complex factors, and each of them deserves due attention. 

LiveLoveLaugh’s doctors' program has already seen over 2,143 physicians managing mental health treatment programs in their community, and that number is only set to grow. To learn more about the program and sign up, visit: https://www.thelivelovelaughfoundation.org/initiatives/doctors-program



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