Although discussions about mental health have become more prevalent in mainstream conversations, the urban-rural disparity still hinders progress in this area. Countless individuals globally grapple with prevalent mental health issues such as depression and thoughts of self-harm. Surprisingly, even within the most advanced nations, these conditions can remain unaddressed and occasionally unidentified.
Struggles with Unaddressed Mental Health Issues in Rural India
The treatment gap in India is notably wide, especially in rural regions where there may be just one doctor for every 30,000 residents. As per Section 18 of the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, each citizen is entitled to access mental health care and treatment through government healthcare facilities. However, the practicality of this right is marred by the inadequate number of mental health professionals and their limited accessibility to the general population.
This World Mental Health Day, a survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) serves as a reminder of the significant gaps in care that rural citizens in India are facing. The survey indicates that 10-12 percent of rural youth in desperate need of mental health services have access to the appropriate resources. A complex interplay of socioeconomic factors can trigger mental health challenges among young people in rural areas. Additionally, concerns related to puberty, an inability to confide in their parents, and a lack of timely access to counselling and psychological support are contributing factors. Moreover, the presence of social stigmas surrounding sexuality and reproductive health can exacerbate their struggles even further.
Digital solutions such as the SnehAI chatbot from the Population Foundation of India are closing the information divide. Recipient of the Digital Tools and Empowerment Award at the 2020 eNGO Challenge, SnehAI effectively communicates in Hinglish and builds a sense of confidence, particularly among rural youth who often find it challenging to open up about personal matters compared to their urban counterparts. This chatbot plays a crucial role in assisting young individuals in comprehending changes related to puberty, addressing cyberbullying, managing peer pressure, and deciphering self-esteem concerns.
Sanghamitra Singh, chief of programs at the Population Foundation of India, explained to Hans India that SnehAI enables young people to easily access information about their concerns via Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, eliminating the need for in-person discussions and preserving their anonymity and privacy.
Recently, the initiative took a progressive step by organizing a series of workshops in cities like Lucknow, Delhi, Patna, Bangalore, Ranchi, Darbhanga, Nawada, and others. These workshops aimed to raise awareness among students about ‘Safety Se Dosti’, focusing on online safety and sexual and reproductive health. These sessions reached over 1,000 students and underscored the significance of providing age-appropriate information concerning adolescent sexual and reproductive health (ASRH). The objective is to foster safer environments, both in classrooms and online platforms.
Addressing Concerns in a Digital Era
There are still opposing considerations when it comes to applying AI in the field of mental health support, especially in India. “We find that people prefer talking to actual humans, and also in a physical setting,” says Shruthi S., from YourDOST – another online counselling platform – for The Quint earlier this year. Chatbots cannot be replacements for actual therapists, as there are many inconsistencies in human behaviour that they might be unequipped to handle properly.
There are also privacy and data breach issues that need to be considered – India currently lacks robust data protection laws, especially those specifically designed for AI applications. Additionally, there is a lack of well-defined regulatory approval procedures for such services before they are introduced to the market.
As we move rapidly into the digital future, it becomes imperative to address these concerns along with questions related to infrastructure and implementation before such ‘AI therapists’ can become a reality throughout the country, if at all.