‘Make psychiatry a popular option for medical students’ – Pr Helen Herrman

Helen Herrman speaks of the need to improve the image of the profession

India has fewer psychiatrists when compared to Australia or some of the European countries. For this, there is a need to improve the image of the profession, and make it a popular option for medical students, says Helen Herrman, president of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA).

“In reality, it is one of the most interesting and rewarding professions in terms of job satisfaction in the areas of medicine and healthcare. We think about people’s minds, lives and life histories,” she said.

In an interaction with The Hindu during a visit to the city, she spoke on the action plan of the WPA and challenges in mental health.

“There are fewer psychiatrists in India in relation to the population. This is a problem. However, when it comes to approaches to developing community mental healthcare, there are many good examples in the country that others can learn from as well,” she said.

Why are there fewer psychiatrists? She explained, “We need jobs and incentives for people to become psychiatrists. Part of the image comes from a neglected field. Part of the neglect comes from the medical school curriculum. I understand that there is another situation in India. I think for much of the country, psychiatry is not an examinable part of the medical curriculum. Psychiatrists need to work with nurses, social workers and psychologists, and be in close contact with families. All of that is less easy when there are fewer people trained.”

Mental heath problems

India, she said, has the building blocks in place. There is the National Mental Health Programme, Mental Healthcare Act and a programme for primary healthcare improvement. “What is vital is development of treatment possibilities for people with mental ill health close to their homes, support to those who need more intensive care in hospitals and linkages with primary health care for regular supply of quality medication,” Prof. Herrman said.

WPA, which is an association of national member societies of psychiatrists, has members in 120 countries, and 140 member societies. “We are interested in ways to promote mental health, to find ways to prevent and treat mental ill health as early as possible to avoid preventable disabilities, and make sure there is high quality care for people who need it,” she said.

“Mental ill health occurs most commonly during the teens and 20s. The most common forms are depression and anxiety across the world. They can range from transient problems to much more significant forms of mental health that affect young people, interfering in their education, jobs and contribution to the community,” she said.

Increase awareness

Stigma associated with mental ill health is a major problem. “It stands in the way of people reaching out for help and stands in the way of public imagination on how we can generate political will for governments to provide adequate resources,” she said.

With awareness, investment in research and better understanding, mental health can be mainstreamed, she said.

WPA’s action plan included strengthening the contribution of psychiatry to the community capacity to respond to mental health needs of young men and women particularly in cities and urban slums. “The need is to support mental health research, and psychiatry in medical curriculum, while bringing together the work of NGOs such as SCARF on care and research, fruitfully integrating it in government-supported areas of work,” she emphasised.