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A Looming Mental Health Crisis In Times Of Slowdown

Mental health experts are worried about a possible crisis in the country as the economy shows signs of a slowdown.

According to Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, a well-known psychiatrist and suicide expert, the general analysis of any type of economic downturn, be it the Asian meltdown, 2008 Indian stock market crash or the 1990s’ dot-com bubble, has always been accompanied by an increase in suicide rates.

According to a 2017 study from the University of Maine, between 2005 and 2010, the unemployment rate in the US during the Great Recession, climbed from 5.1% to 9.6%. Over the same period, suicide rates also climbed – from 10.9 persons to 12.1 persons per 100,000 population.

The research study that was done by Pankaj Agrrawal, co-authored by Doug Waggle and Daniel Sandweiss explains, “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data of more than 2 million non-natural deaths in the US since 1980 reveals a positive correlation with unemployment levels.

The analysis found that suicides and murder-suicides associated with adverse market sentiment lag the initial stressor by up to two years, thus opening a policy window for government or public health intervention to reduce these negative outcomes.”

“Whether it is a trend, one could only analyse, but majority of the cases have been of men between the age group of 30-50 years. They feel that as breadwinners of a family, they have not only let themselves down but also their families, in turn not reaching out to their immediate family members,” said Dr Lakshmi.

Going by the famous saying of ‘the faster you grow, the harder you fall,’ Dr Lakshmi talks about ‘cognitive constriction’ in suicides where, “people at the top, feel ashamed to admit, which acts as a trigger. There is a misconception that a problem cannot be solved and that suicide is the only way out, without perceiving other rational solutions.”

A 2015 study by Assocham found “depression or general anxiety disorder prevalent among nearly 42.5% of employees in the private sector, with demanding schedules, high stress levels and performance-linked perquisites cited as the main causes.”

The latest available National Crime Records Bureau 2015 report on suicides shows that bankruptcy and indebtedness account for about 5% of all suicides in India.

Usha Krishnamurthy, Counsellor (Mental Health) says – “Suicide is classless; put apart age, sex, wealthetc, are less important than the person’s illness, for it is an illness. Robin Williams is as likely to commit suicide as Meena the maid servant even though we may believe Robin Williams probably had fewer reasons and more resources to prevent it.”

Both Usha and Dr Lakshmi feel that while it is largely celebrity or elite suicides which attract attention and debate, awareness and a sincere social effort to reduce the stigma of depression and democratise the availability of resources is the only answer.

“Government has created rules for providing counsellors in institutions, a rule often bypassed by most. Efforts like the The Live Love Laugh Foundation by DeepikaPadukone and Sneha the suicide helpline on one hand and understanding families on the other, are the only way ahead,” adds Usha.

“Workplace burnout is a less talked about entity. We get to know about the top cases as they are talked about, but what needs immediate attention is a check on mid-level workplace stress and suicides. WHO (World Health Organisation) too has recognised workplace burnout as a syndrome and plans to come out with solutions for the same, which the corporates need to effectively implement to maintain a stress free atmosphere,” highlights Dr Lakshmi.

In its latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases, the WHO in a first, has officially classified workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon. The agency which previously defined burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion” plans to develop “evidence-based” guidelines for mental well-being in the workplace. Its member nations are set to implement the revisions to the International Classification of Diseases by 2022.

According to IHS Markit, a London–based global information provider, only a net 15% of private sector companies surveyed in June 2019, see a potential output growth in the year ahead, lower than in the time of UPA II’s period.

The survey which was conducted before the Union budget, shows that companies are worried about the economic slowdown, market growth, public policies, weak sales, rupee fall, lack of skilled labour and even water shortage.

Take for instance startups in India, the case of the Angel Tax – the income tax department wanted to tax investments coming into a start-up by treating them as income if they exceeded a certain value.

Initially this was observed as a harassment of start-ups, which no Start Up India and Make In India schemes could solve.

Abhishek Rengasamy, a social entrepreneur and founder of Dumbell, an award winning fitness and lifestyle startup, from Chennai, says even though startups faced a lot of problems for a long time initially, this Budget finally exempted start-ups from tax scrutiny if they filed required declarations.

“The long drawn process of attracting foreign investors into our markets has also been simplified online for startups,” he says.

Approaching the phenomena of dealing with entrepreneurial stress positively he adds, “If something is not right, what one does to make it right is what matters. Markets fluctuate often and I personally believe in working rigorously when the market is slowing down and work the usual when it’s booming.

Unless an extreme need arises, entrepreneurs should work on solutions for problems and they should do so by work according to the present market needs.”

While in 2010 with Rs 30,171, the per capita debt in India increased by 23% year on year, by 2016 per capita debt grew by over 9% to Rs 53,796.

The current “Great Indian Dream” is of a USD five trillion economy status, for which India has to consistently achieve a minimum of 9% growth rate for next five years.

On the other hand, economic indicators are sounding alarms, with the GDP touching a six-year-low in the first financial quarter of April-June 2020.

India’s entrepreneurial community, stared appalled at the tragic death of coffee baron VG Siddhartha. Although it may not have been the first of its kind, many such successful business idols have succumbed to financial pressures by allegedly committing suicide.

Right from stories of financial executives jumping from tall buildings on Wall Street during the 1929 crash to the Indian stock market crash in 2008, that saw a chain of suicides by stockbrokers in India, mental wellness among entrepreneurs across the world is an issue hardly dealt with in the community. A less talked about epidemic that is silently catching up with India Inc.

The fact that entrepreneurial depression is a reality and is not getting the attention that it should, at a time when setting up a small scale business is a struggle or even the uncertainty over the survival of existing businesses in a cut-throat market, is an alarming situation in itself.

While farmer suicides have become a part and parcel of the Indian demographics, it is perhaps time for our politicians to turn towards the everyday businessman and woman before it is too late.

(Suicide is not an answer for any troubles. If you are depressed or having suicidal thoughts, seek help and contact suicide helpline Sneha at 044-2464 0050)

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