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OPINION | Mental Health Beyond Clichés: A Railway Officer's Fight against Bipolar Disorder

Image for representation only.

Image for representation only.

If we stratify this population, by official estimates, a minimum 1.5 Crore Indians of working age suffer from serious mental illnesses. I'd add an estimated 3.5 crore, who are suffering, if not severely. Thus, 5 crore of country's work force, at any given point, is in need of mental health care.

For 25 years, October 10, has been celebrated as the World Mental Health Day. With this year's theme being 'Mental Health in Workplace', the time is opportune to examine how ready Indian workplaces are to combat the growing burden of mental illness.

India's National Mental Health Survey, 2016, the largest of its kind globally, had a morbid finding -- at any given time, over 10 percent Indians suffer from a mental illness. Additionally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates one in four Indians will suffer from some form of mental illness in their lifetime.

This is scary. What should worry us is that 90 percent sufferers have no access to healthcare.

Mental illness is remarkably egalitarian in its bite. It attacks across caste, class and religion, though, those at the bottom of the pyramid are worst off. The youth is most afflicted but anyone can fall ill later in life. Even if early youth, adulthood and middle age are more susceptible ages for mental illnesses to occur, geriatric cases are on the uptick. Yet, despite the preponderance and severity of mental illness, it remains surrounded by a lack of awareness and an abominable stigma.

Mental Illness and working Class Population

Youth, adults and middle aged persons constitute the working population — public or private, formal or informal, urban or rural. If we stratify this population, by official estimates, a minimum 1.5 Crore Indians of working age suffer from serious mental illnesses. I'd add an estimated 3.5 crore, who are suffering, if not severely. Thus, 5 crore of country's work force, at any given point, is in need of mental health care.

It begs the questions, are workplaces ready to provide assistance to those in need?

A Personal Story

In early 1997, I was a highly successful Government of India officer, toast of the prestigious Konkan Railway Project. In the aftermath of the Harshad Mehta Securities Scam, market conditions were extremely hostile. Yet, I was labeled the 'Financial Engineer', after raising money for the completion of the signature project. One sunny morning, my professional life changed dramatically as I moved, laterally, from a cushy government job to become one of the youngest Vice Presidents in the Essar Group, with a then rare six figure salary, too.

The change from a Class-I government officer to corporate honcho was disruptive. My circadian clock had to reset to 18-20 hour corporate workdays, a total lack of tenure security sent shivers down the spine (I was my own boss in the government job), and extraordinary stress worsened my mental health. Within months, I spiraled into deep depression. By November, I was in an inescapable vicious cycle. In February and September, 1998, I had two successive, severe mental breakdown, and was reduced to a vegetative state.

Colleagues and bosses were dumbfounded. I was of no use to Essar's promoters, the Ruias and my corporate career seemed over before it started. Given the stigma and ignorance attached to mental illness, the Ruias could have chucked me out.

Instead, Shashi and Ravi Ruia proved to be guardian angels. Being new to the organisation, I had no leave to my credit, and between November 1997 and May, 1999 (when I took the decision to go abroad in inebriated state to get Masters in Management degree from Asian Institute of Management, Manila). I largely stayed home. If I went to office, in Mahalaxmi, Mumbai, and later in Hazira, I curled up in a fetal position in my chair and cried inconsolably. Every month, I was given my fat salary without contributing anything to justify it. I was allowed to retain my pricey accommodation in up-market Lokhandwala and the use of the costly office car. My wife got occasional calls from the Group HR Head, asking what more could be done to help us.

This, even as I blamed, cursed and abused Essar scion Prashant Ruia for my state. Truthfully, my illness, Bipolar Disorder, had biological determinants, and various environmental triggers, both before and after joining Essar, brought it to the fore.

Mine was one in a million cases of compassion shown by a corporate to an employee suffering from mental illness. It was a textbook case of what to do when your star employee breaks down.

With this in mind, I ask how inclusive Indian workplaces are for the mentally ill. India was one of the first countries to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has a forward looking Mental Health Policy, 2014, and the Mental Health Care Act, 2017, which will become operational in next three months.

Yet, increasing workplace stress lends urgency to this questions. Incidences of suicides and suicide attempts are growing, particularly due to depression.

Despite changes in policy and statues, corporate India is not an inclusive place for mentally ill. As one who follows the policy of Glasnost, I went public with my story a decade ago. However, I have faced stigma and, ever since, found it impossible to be employed again. When I created the blog akhilvaani, last year, for people to "Own-Up, Open-Up and Talk" about mental health, I found few takers.

Most people, I've found over three and a half decades, cannot talk about their mental illness to colleagues and bosses. Most dare not, as employers, barring a few, are not ready to shoulder the responsibility of a mentally ill employee. Shareholders' returns are more important than the health of this most important stakeholder, even though, in this process, the organisation is the net loser. Employees keep their illness to themselves, though most are either curable or eminently treatable. If someone ill is reasonably taken care of they can return to regular work and contribute handsomely.

Current Scenario

A leading newspaper today asks "Why men in uniform are feeling low" (I HAVEN'T BEEN ABLE TO CROSS CHECK THIS), and lists those men who committed suicide this year. This trend is not limited to men in uniform, but to those in the all sectors. Alarmed by this increase in suicides, of the young and not so young, I committed myself to ‘Mission Zero Suicide India’.

Intriguingly, I found those suffering illnesses are treated better in the public sector than in the private. Possibly, relatively less stress and job security makes the difference. Stigma abounds in the private sector. If you get cancer you get sympathy, if you get depression you get fired.

My disorder has not stopped me from contributing immensely in various fields. My case stands apart as my workplace accommodated me. Apart from a supportive family and regular treatment, my bosses, colleagues, even clients cooperated.

Mental illness is like any other illness. Most suffering from some form of it can work, as much if not more, than colleagues in better health. They just need empathy and an understanding office.

If there are maternity and paternity leaves for employees, then why no similar consideration for those with mental illness. A patient does not require sympathy, only their organisation's solidarity, for a while.

Employers have a selfish reason to promote mental health at work place. Mental illnesses have huge economic cost in terms of lost productivity. Today's workers, increasingly, are knowledge worker. There is much to be gained in taking care of them.

If charity begins at home, why not to look to taking care of employees as the beginning of corporate social responsibility?

(Author is Principal Instigator "Action Group-Mission Zero Suicide India". He was also a member of Government of India constituted Mental Health Policy Group)