Experts laud newly-proposed National Tele-Mental Health Programme

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While traditionally mental health has been a much-ignored subject in India, its acknowledgment during the Budget 2022-23 speech by Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday is commendable, said experts, while expressing dismay over the low allocation for the healthcare sector.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday announced a National Tele-Mental Health Programme while presenting the Union Budget for FY 2022-23.

The National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, will be the nodal agency for this.

“Traditionally, mental health has been neglected in health budgets with minuscule funding of less than 1 per cent of the health sector allocation. But it is commendable to see an acknowledgment towards making quality mental health counseling and care services accessible through a ‘National Tele Mental Health Programme’,” said Suryaprabha Sadasivan, Vice President, Healthcare, Chase India, a leading policy research and consulting firm.

“This is a welcome move, considering the glaring need for access to advanced mental health care in the country. It is not often, we see mental health being explicitly mentioned in our budgets,” added Rachana Parikh, Senior Programme Officer, Mental Health, PATH South Asia.

The two years of the Covid-19 pandemic has renewed focus on the issues of mental health.

Besides anxiety and depression related to the Covid virus itself, many people also had an impact on their mental health due to lockdowns, several restrictions and the resulting socio-economic downturn.

According to a study published in the Lancet journal, the pandemic has led to a steep rise in cases of depression and anxiety globally, representing a 26 per cent and 28 per cent increase in the two disorders respectively.

“The pandemic has accentuated mental health problems in people of all ages. To improve the access to quality mental health counselling and care services, a National Tele-Mental Health Programme will be launched,” announced Sitharaman in the Parliament.

The programme will consist of 23 tele-mental health centres as part of the network with NIHMANS being the central agency. The technical support for the mental health programme will be provided by the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Bengaluru.

“This is a great move by the Government, in fact, this was much needed indeed. There is a dearth of psychiatrists in India, we have one psychiatrist for 3,500 patients. So, seeing everyone in person was a big challenge, teleconsultation is a big boon for our fraternity,” said Pallavi Joshi, Consultant Psychiatrist, Manipal Hospital, Bengaluru.

“Patients can definitely talk more on teleconsultation, and we’ll be happy to interact with them and look at their expressions. Also, some of these patients who are afraid of stigmatisation can consult online from anywhere,” she added.

In her Budget speech, Sitharaman also proposed an open platform for the national digital health ecosystem. It will consist of digital registries of health providers and health facilities, unique health identities, consent framework and universal access to the health facilities.

However, the experts lamented that the allocation has not improved for the healthcare sector.

“Given how the pandemic has reinforced the need for a strong public health system, the budget allocation does not consider the three key pillars of strengthening health system resilience, health security, and universal health coverage. The total increment of budget allocation for healthcare vis-a-vis last year is almost negligible (0.2 per cent), which is highly disappointing,” Sadasivan, said.

“There was an expectation of significant increase in the budgetary allocation to health for FY 22-23 in face of the impact of the pandemic. However in pure monetary terms there is no major outlay to the healthcare sector per se. The allocation as a percentage of the GDP doesn’t appear to have changed,” said Dilip Kamat, Senior Medical Administrator, Amrita Hospital, Kochi.

“The development of public health infrastructure and development of skilled healthcare professionals to meet the healthcare needs of the growing population of India doesn’t find a mention in the Budget. This is disappointing in a way as these were badly exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic especially during the second wave,” he added.

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