“There is no development without health, and no health without mental health,” declared WHO. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic which has affected every individual in the world in profound ways, it would do well for the government and people to pay heed to this statement, and make mental health a priority, whether it is by finding some ‘me-time’, indulging in a meditative session, sorting out your finances or opting for a health insurance policy that mitigates the risk of illnesses, mental and physical.
Globally, women make up over 70 per cent of workers on the frontline, including those working in healthcare institutions (Source: ILO). In India, almost 40% of all health workers are female (WHO)—this includes doctors, nurses, midwives and ancillary healthcare workers who worked tirelessly on the frontlines throughout the pandemic. And yet in most cases, women were the hardest hit by the pandemic, both at their workplace and at home during the lockdown, due to the stress of increased household chores, lack of help, and the need to devote extra time and attention to children due to online classes.
As we mark the completion of Year 2 of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought with it physical stress, mental anxiety, financial woes, rise in the incidence of crimes against women and a plethora of other issues, it is time for women to take control, prioritize themselves and their mental health. This will enable them to not just be independent, financially and otherwise, but also continue to be valuable members of the community and society.
Matters of the mind
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in every five Indians—or nearly 20% of India—suffers from some form of mental illness currently. The global Covid-19 pandemic has further escalated the problem by bringing along anxiety about physical health, extended lockdowns leading to long periods of social disconnection, fear of losing jobs and increased stress of learning new ways to work.
Mental illness is already a taboo subject in India due to the stigma associated with it. But if you are a woman, chances are you’ve had it worse. CARE’s Rapid Gender Analysis on the impact of the pandemic on men’s and women’s lives across 38 countries in 2021, found that the number of women who reported mental health impact from COVID-19 was threefold that of men.
Unfortunately, a lot of the mental health issues faced by women can be attributed to stress related to dealing with underappreciated or unpaid labour and familial responsibilities. Consider the facts: more and more women are educated, qualified, and employed today—their workload has increased, but they continue to battle the gender gap. At home, traditional gender roles continue to affect the power balance between women and men. For instance, many women, especially mothers, continue to have disproportionately more responsibilities at home. With schools moving operations online, the onus of ensuring children attend online classes has largely fallen on mothers, who are juggling WFH jobs, children’s education, and household chores. The pandemic has also sparked an increase in violence and crimes against women, with women’s shelters, helplines, and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) all reporting an increase in calls for help from women. A not-so-surprising fallout of this is the increase in post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological stress, anxiety, and depression in women, especially in the working age group.
The good news is India is slowly but steadily waking up to the need to focus on mental health. As a result, mental health awareness is on the rise. Once a taboo subject, it is slowly finding its way into the mainstream, especially with more and more people speaking up online about their battles with mental health issues. There are several helplines that offer support and guidance to callers seeking information or help.
With increasing awareness, psychiatric screening, improved access to medicines, regular counseling, and support and acceptance from family and society, mental illness can be overcome. However, one needs to also remember that issues such as mental illness, which need medical intervention, repeated consultations, and therapy sessions, along with medication and sometimes, hospitalization, can also be a big drain on one’s finances. A sure-fire way to mitigate the risk of such an expense is by choosing an appropriate health insurance policy that covers mental illness.
Personal finance may be largely about money management; however, it is undeniable that today, how one manages money affects almost every aspect of one’s life and well-being, more so for women. While financial issues can lead to stress and mental health issues, the converse is true as well—lack of mental well-being can have an adverse effect on how women deal with money as well. For instance, someone with mental illness may overspend or lack motivation to save, make impulsive decisions, suffer job loss or a reduced income due to non-performance at work, affect their financial stability. Apart from this, inability to deal with financial worries can also lead to anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disorders, depression, etc. All of these constitute very valid reasons for women to invest in both mental health as well as mental health insurance.
Mental health: a national issue
Well aware of the fact that the pandemic has accentuated mental health problems in the country, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the plan to set up a National Tele-Mental Health Programme in India. 23 tele-mental health centres will be launched with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) as the nodal centre and International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Bangalore providing technology support. A national tele-mental
health program is a good starting point to normalize mental health conversations and seek help and access to universal health facilities. Acknowledging the prevalence of the problem and its seriousness, the Insurance Regulatory Development Authority of India (IRDAI), too, has stated that insurers should keep mental illness at par with physical illness in regular health insurance coverage.
However, a lot more remains to be done. Most insurance policies only cover hospitalization for mental health, whereas only 1% of mental health patients need hospitalization. The more frequent and urgent need is coverage of sessions with a medical practitioner and medication, which are covered by very few brands. In addition, there is an urgent need to de-stigmatize the issue, create awareness about the symptoms of mental illness and educate people to take action and seek available help, both medical and financial. The government could also invest in more health and social care services, and offer better social, legal, and financial protection for people battling mental illnesses.
While the government works on increasing affordable mental healthcare and making it available to all, the case for women to invest in their own mental health on a personal level is strong. Looking after your finances and investing in an insurance cover that mitigates the financial risk posed by a host of health issues, including mental illness, is a form of self-care. And it is high time, women in India indulged in some self-care by prioritizing and investing in their mental health and well-being.
Ruchika Malhan Varma is Chief Marketing Officer, Future Generali Insurance India.