Grey Areas– Exploring the Line Between Superstition and Mental Health Stigma
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
My mother receives a distressed phone call from our security guard. His daughter, age 22, is suffering from a seizure of some sort, thrashing around wildly, murmuring incoherent words – all the while screaming and shouting. Our security guard, a humble man hailing from a tiny village in coastal Gujarat, is beyond concerned regarding the condition of his daughter Pooja. However, he informs us, upon their elders’ advice, his wife is taking their daughter to the village tantric (faith-healer).
Pooja’s story is one out of hundreds of instances that occur in rural India where the people’s first response is resorting to superstitious means of treatment like faith-healers.
According to the National Mental Health Survey commissioned by the Health Ministry and conducted by NIMHANS between 2014-2016, 0.6 percent of Indian adults – nearly 150 million people – suffered from a mental health disorder. 83% of the people did not receive treatment. We must not forget that 80% of India’s population resides in rural areas.
Pooja’s visit to the faith healer resulted in her returning with a giant iron locket which she was instructed to wear around her neck. Pooja’s mother immediately claimed how Pooja was magically cured by God’s grace. Two weeks later, Pooja had another episode.
The public mental health burden is ever-increasing. Studies indicate that 45% of psychiatric patients have sought about 1-15 session with folk healers in South India, while nearly 40% consult faith healers in North India.
What is the reason behind such profound stigma?
Stigma around mental illness prevails largely due to lack of awareness, lack of education and general misinformation. Here we must also take into consideration various external factors like socio-economic conditions, cultural practices, and societal prejudice. This stigma is further amplified due to the superstitious beliefs held by the society as a collective and widespread prejudice against mental illnesses.
After Pooja’s second episode, her distraught mother wanted to resort to beating her up to ‘cure’ her. After explaining to her multiple times that seeking professional medical help was the best resort, the major issue that concerned her was how the village might look down upon their daughter and nobody would want to marry her.
Multiple studies conclude that the educated individuals in rural areas have a comparatively positive attitude towards mental illnesses and psychiatrists than uneducated ones. Moreover, this stigma surrounding mental illnesses causes among the people a fear of being shamed ostracized from society. There also exist tremendous misconceptions regarding treatment approaches and the procedures employed in mental health institutes.
The relief provided by such superstitious practices is short-lived and does little to treat the underlying mental illness.
At present, Pooja has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She is receiving treatment and medication from a licensed psychiatrist from a town near her village. Her visits to the faith-healer have not ceased, but now only involve meditation and prayer chanting.
The key to approaching the massive issue of superstition v/s mental health can be an approach where the patient is encouraged to receive the medical/therapeutic help they require but can also garner the support of their faith.
Creating awareness in rural communities and educating people about mental health remain a priority when it comes to de-stigmatizing mental health. Despite of the National Mental Health Policy and WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan that recommends community-based services to be delivered by primary care workers, its execution is not uniform throughout the country, and where present, it is not delivered or evaluated on a regular basis. This calls for a closer look at increasing the efficiency of including mental health into national primary healthcare policies and alleviating the national burden due to mental disorders.
The road to mental health literacy and zero prejudice seems distant and hazy, but small, sure steps, mobile technology and various NGOs and even government initiatives promise a slow but steady transformation in rural areas.
Ninie Verma is pursuing Bachelors in Communication from Fergusson College, Pune. She is passionate about education, especially accessible education for girls. She works as a Content Writer Intern at Kanyaka Foundation.