A Unique Way Of Bringing Down Farmer Suicides In India

For a country that had a primarily agrarian economy, with a large chunk of its population engaged in agricultural activities, the ignominious truth of farmer suicides hits hard. A 2014 survey reported more than 5500 farmer suicides in the country and sadly enough, the numbers have been steadily rising. The huge spike in suicide rates can be attributed to mounting debt and increasing crop failure. Maharashtra is the most affected state, witnessing the highest numbers of farmer suicides. In fact, the Vidarbha region, comprising Nagpur and Amravati Divisions has gained infamy, coming into the national spotlight for the startling proportions of such cases.

The Initiative To Tackle Depression & Suicide In Farmers

“An evaluation of the Vidarbha Stress and Health Programme found that the prevalence of depression has reduced by 22% in a year and suicidal thoughts by nearly 51%”

There may be some light at the bottom of this abyss, as a grass-root community mental health program, called Vishram or the Vidarbha Stress and Health Programme, has been successful in reducing the prevalence of suicidal tendencies in the area. Launched a few years ago, the goal of the program was to establish a sustainable rural mental health program to address mental health issues in rural India and risk factors for suicide like alcohol abuse and depression in the agrarian community. According to an evaluation of the intensive 18-month program, the prevalence of depression has reduced by 22% in a year, while suicidal thoughts have reduced by nearly 51%.

How Vishram Approached Mental Health Care For Farmers

“The program featured grassroots health workers to raise awareness about depression & provide psychological first-aid, while it also included counselors and psychiatrists for clinical treatment”

The program, implemented with the assistance of an NGO called Prakriti, deployed health workers from within the community, some with no background in mental health. These workers were trained to raise mental health awareness and provide “psychological first-aid”. The program also included counselors who sought to improve mental health literacy. The third line of workers consisted of expert psychiatrists, who are qualified to provide medications for more serious mental health disorders.

Frontline workers interacted directly with the agrarian population, talking about the “tension” they were experiencing and helping bring them to the realization that this stress could actually be a mental health disorder like depression. For many farmers, just having someone to vent out to proved to be cathartic. Being a part of the community, the healthcare workers were well aware of the issues being faced and they could understand the root problems better; hence they were quite successful in introducing effective coping mechanisms for dealing with depression and suicidal tendencies.

Changing Perceptions Of Mental Illness

“Thanks to the Vishram initiative, the proportion of those with depression who sought help rose from a mere 4.2% to 27.2%”

Another significant impact of the program was a six fold increase in the proportion of people seeking mental care. The proportion of those with depression who sought help rose from a mere 4.2% to 27.2%. This in itself highlights the success of the program in spreading awareness and raising mental health literacy in a rural community. As depression is one of the leading causes of suicide, this could explain the sharp dip in suicide numbers as well.

Following the tremendous success of Vishram we hope that other Indian states can follow suit and take drastic measures to address this problem. After all, without our farmers, we would not have food on our tables and turning a blind eye to their plight would leave a permanent stain on our collective consciousness.

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