“I am suffering from depression and I want two weeks off.” It is highly unlikely that a Bangalore employer has ever heard such a reason from an employee asking for time off from work. On the other hand, says S. Kalyanasundaram, a leading Bangalore psychiatrist whose practice has spanned four decades, many are likely to hide their mental ailments and come up with reasons such as, “I have an appointment with my gynaecologist” or “My landlord has an emergency”. The busiest day in his practice is Saturday, when companies are shut for the weekend.
It is regrettable that in a city with a large population of youth, a lack of sensitivity even from companies in the technology sector, a paucity of trained mental health professionals and continued social stigma surrounding mental health problems conspire to keep those with mental health issues from admitting to the problem or seeking help.
“The awareness about mental health issues is increasing, but the biggest block still is, ‘my employer must not know’ or ‘my social group should not find out,’” says Manoj Chandran, CEO of White Swan Foundation, a mental health non-profit backed by IT firm Mindtree’s co-founder, Subroto Bagchi.
Black Swan offers knowledge services for urban youth in the 15-35 age group in Tier 1 and Tier 2 Indian cities. “The stigma causes denial and worsens the issue,” says Chandran.
In Bangalore, nearly half of the workers in the technology sector are under 40, in the peak of their demanding careers and living amidst financial and family stresses. Depression, acute anxiety, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), panic attacks, eating and sleeping disorders, and social withdrawal are all too common outcomes of stress at competitive workplaces. Bangalore has the highest suicide rate among cities in India. But it is taboo to admit to depression or panic attacks.
Mental health issues in Bangalore are skyrocketing as cut-throat competition puts pressure on professionals. Workplaces are ruthless, as rapid changes in the IT services industry reduce jobs. Employees are expected to learn diverse skills, change and adapt. The targets get stiffer, the deadlines shorter and the anxiety of lay-offs perennially hang over employees.
“People are never able to tune off from work, the concept of winding down in the evening is disappearing and that takes a toll because people do not have the time to nourish their souls and their relationships,” says Maullika Sharma, global clinical manager in Bangalore at Workplace Options, a multinational that provides mental health and wellbeing assistance to companies and their employees.
Several distinct factors make Bangalore rife with mental health issues, say experts. People stream into Bangalore from small-town India, land jobs and salaries that they had only dreamed of, and yet, feel alienated in the city, says Sharma, who has been counselling in the city for eight years.
Growing consumerism is landing many in financial problems and being tangled in a cycle of EMIs, while coping with economic uncertainty at high-pressure jobs, compounds stress. The dynamic nature of relationships and a change in women’s role in the workplace and the family, in what used to be a traditional society, is another cause that counsellors encounter frequently.
On top of all this, the shortage of trained mental health professionals even in a city like Bangalore compounds the problem. There are an estimated 4,500 psychiatrists in a country where one in four Indians, or 300 million people, suffers some form of mental health disorder, such as stress and depression. Given the vast numbers, the paucity of professionals is staggering.
At the Nimhans Centre for Wellbeing — located in southern Bangalore, well away from the mental hospital attached to India’s premier mental health institution, NIMHANS — the distance is a comfort for those visiting for help, says D. Padmavathi, the first contact at the centre and a counsellor. Even though it does not advertise its services, the Centre receives at least 50 walk-ins per week besides hundreds of phone calls, much more than it can handle on some days.
Only suicide statistics seem to flag the state of mental health problems in Bangalore. But underlying the suicide data are huge numbers of those who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses. “The technology boom has helped the city progress over the decades in terms of how much money a young person makes in the shortest span of time,” says Kalyanasundaram. But, he says, the same forward-thinking companies that pay handsome salaries and care about their workers’ material wellbeing, do not pay enough attention to their mental wellbeing.