A recent WHO study stated  that India has the highest number of depressed people in the World – about 9% of people in India had an extended period of depression within their lifetime and 36% suffered from what is called a major depressive episode, depression that  lasts for a smaller period.

While there were certainly flaws in the way the study was presented  –  the data released was only for data collected near Puducherry, and cannot be extrapolated to the rest of India –  I am surprised at the reaction of the country’s leading mental health institution – NIMHANS.

According to newspaper reports, psychiatrists from Nimhans said “most people who come to tertiary mental health care centres have moderate to mild forms of depression”; and echoed the health ministry’s position on the report, “We Indians are happy people.”

That reaction is even more depressing than the report of depression.  In order to address a problem we have to first acknowledge that the problem exists.

And there’s no doubt that Indians are facing unprecedented emotional challenges.   A study published in the medical journal, The Lancet, in 2004 concluded that “The rates of suicides are several fold higher than those reported anywhere in the world… 148 per 100 000 for young women, and for young men 58 per 100 000,” at least ten times as much as in the west.

But you don’t need a study to tell you that emotional distress in India has increased. Almost everyday, newspapers carry reports of suicide and violent crimes. Look around you, and you see beleaguered parents, stressed employees, turbulent marriages, divorces, and teenage angst. We are definitely a society in stress.

A society that has seen the dismantling of old values, the disppearence of previous norms and social mores, all in the space of ten years, and that too in a country where 75% of the population is under the age of 35.

We are changing like no society has ever changed before, and as any psychologist will tell you, change = stress.

So why this curious reaction from the Indian ministry and mental health establishment?

Sigmund Freud would probably term their reaction, “denial”, a “primitive psychological defence mechanism”. ( Defence mechanisms are a way in which our minds shield ourselves from anxiety. You can read more about this here, and I will discuss defence mechanisms in further detail in subsequent posts)

I am no alarmist. I am a realist. And there’s no sense in burying our heads in the sand. We have to see clearly the crisis, and the opportunity that exists in this crisis.

Let us not deny that the symptoms exist. But let us see and frame the symptoms based on what we know about our country and society, and not in purely western terms.

First, I have to remind you that depression is a construct, not an objective entity.  We don’t have blood tests or MRIs for depression.  Psychiatrists diagnose depression based on “diagnostic criteria” –   if a person has certain symptoms, then, by consensus, psychiatrists would state that the person is suffering from “depression.”

So, for example if a person is sad, distressed and is not sleeping well and eating well and there are no other medical causes for these symptoms, psychiatrists would diagnose depression.

While this is useful in treatment and research, this sort of approach does not address the heart of the issue.  The cause of a disease – “etiology” in medical parlance – is not part of the psychiatric diagnostic criteria.  In other words, the diagnosis of depression is a construct, and an incomplete one at that.

It’s true that many Indians are feeling distress – anxiety, meaninglessness, worry, anger, self-analysis, doubt, uncertainty, emptiness –  but to merely call it depression (as the WHO report did) does not help us find a solution; and to minimize the existence of this issue (as the mental health establishment did) is to ignore the problem altogether.

The Gap

The London underground system famously tells commuters to “mind the gap”, to watch the space between the platform and the train.

The advice is apt for any individual or society undergoing a transition.  “The gap”, in terms of human potential development, is the space between your current state and your desired state. Picture a trapeze artist letting go of one bar, and reaching for the next. Imagine the exhilaration and the anxiety before you grasp the next bar and finally get to your desired destination.

I believe that India is currently in “the gap”. We are in a state where we have let go of old social structures, and we haven’t quite grasped the next ones yet. And because we haven’t found or firmed up a new way of doing things we are still at a loss.

The widespread emotional turmoil, the existential vacuum, the sense of confusion, is in fact a preparatory stage for transformation.

In this “gap”, we have the opportunity for positive growth and transformation, into a new way of being.




Here are my conclusions about the WHO report:


1. The WHO report is true in that it captures the state of a society in flux, change and confusion.

2. However, western notions of “depression” are not directly applicable to contemporary India.

3. We are going through significant change

4.  We are in “the gap”.

5.  We have an opportunity to transcend and transform ourselves from this gap into a whole new way of being where we can let go of the past and reinvent ourselves using all the positive attributes of the past and letting go of all the things that held us back.

6. These are challenging, exciting, and yes, interesting times.

7.  In order to transform into positivity, we cannot blithely ignore the WHO report and the current state of our country.

We have to first acknowledge that something is going on.

36% of our country are not happy and unafraid to acknowledge it. But they are not depressed.

They are in the beginnings of change. The beginnings of positive transformation.

August 2, 2011 | 9:24 am | By Dr Shyam Bhat