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Painting a depressing picture

By Dr Anand Kulkarni

One of the most urgent and pressing problems of our time is the issue of mental illness. According to a recent World Health Organisation report, 4.4% of the world’s population suffers from depression, with the incidence being higher among people aged between 55-74 years. The problem is skewed by both age and gender. Moreover, it is becoming alarmingly worse. Between 2005 and 2015, depression amongst the citizens of the world grew by close to 20%. While it is a global phenomenon, certain countries have fared worse than others.

Something is fundamentally amiss

4.5% of Indians suffered from depression in 2015, slightly above the global average. When translated into raw numbers, this is a whopping 567 lakh people. In the South East Asian and South Asian regions, India has the highest proportion of those experiencing depression. The health and broader social and economic impacts of this trend are mind-boggling.

Clearly, something is fundamentally amiss. One can point to many social, cultural, historical and economic factors at play in India. The National Institute for Mental Health in India in its recent mental health survey pointed to poverty, low levels of education and workforce status as being closely associated with mental disorders (broader than just depression). It also confirmed that depression is higher among females aged between 40-49 years and residing in metro areas. Therefore the focus here is on gender inequality, income disparity and, consequently, the multifaceted nature of mental health problems.

The gender gap: Systemic economic and social factors

Several research studies reveal an alarming picture. According to the World Bank, females only account for 24% of the total labour force in India. Simply put, Indian women will not be able to find employment if they do not have access to opportunities in the labour force. This, in turn, goes to the heart of empowerment, esteem and independence. By comparison, women comprise 43.9% of the Chinese labour force and even 40.4% of the Bangladeshi labour force. For a country with India’s economic growth and high aspirations, this is an alarming statistic and addressing it should become a priority. It has also been found that Indian women find it more difficult to participate in formal education despite some improvement. Later in life, they are confronted with constraints on female entrepreneurship associated with access to finance, training and mentoring.

A related issue is that of unpaid work and the disproportionate burden that falls on women. According to the OECD, for the latest available year, Indian males spend 51.8 minutes per day on unpaid work, compared to 351.9 minutes per day for females. While it is true that in most countries there is an imbalance between time spent on unpaid work by males and females, the imbalance is particularly acute in India. Another related issue is the lack of participation by women in the emerging digital economy. Only 29% of Internet users in India are females compared to 71% males. The critical economic and social opportunities that these new technologies offer are simply not benefiting women. For a country, which prides itself on its IT capabilities, this is a particularly disappointing trend.

The twin goal of uplifting women and combating mental health problems

Efforts must be made to implement some variant of a basic universal income scheme. While this is no substitute for proper participation in the labour force, it is an important social safety net. However, unlike most schemes, this must be targeted towards females (at low or zero levels of income) rather than being open-ended. The scheme could take the form of income or a voucher to enable women to spend on education and the like, thereby improving educational participation. A variation of this could be to put a value on unpaid work and pay accordingly.

A number of other solutions also exist, such as:

  • Massive increase in training in the use of internet, and greater access to computing facilities for females
  • Stronger support for female participation in work including possibly gender-based wage subsidies (perhaps a more targeted version of MGNREGA)
  • Greater networking and mentoring initiatives for would-be female entrepreneurs
  • Gender impact assessments associated with major public and private projects

Clearly, a multitude of possibilities exist, but it is important to remember that none of these can be successful without a fundamental cultural change.

Dr Anand Kulkarni (Australia) is a Consultant and Principal Advisor at Victoria University, Melbourne. He is also the Associate Editor for the Journal “International Review of Business and Economics” and a Fellow at the Centre For Policy Development in Australia.

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