“We sold the buffalo to pay for a brain scan” – a qualitative study of rural experiences with private mental healthcare providers in Uttar Pradesh, India

Kaaren Mathias, K S Jacob, Abhay Shukla

DOI: 10.20529/IJME.2019.057


The majority of persons with mental distress (PWMD) in India do not have access to care, and even those who seek care are pushed to attend private providers, given the weak and largely absent public mental health services framework. The aim of this study was to examine the experiences in help-seeking and with unethical health service provision among persons with mental distress in the Saharanpur and Bijnor districts of Uttar Pradesh. In-depth interviews were conducted with twenty persons with mental distress and their caregivers. Thematic analysis yielded four key findings about help-seeking: first, that it was syncretic and persistent; second, that expenditure for private care was high and often catastrophic; third, that investigations and care provided were pharmacological and predominantly irrational and excessive; and lastly, that help-seeking was abandoned. This study demonstrates that PWMD are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by private providers with illnesses that are stigmatising, poorly understood, chronic, relapsing, and disabling and that often require complex management. Responding to mental distress requires multiple empowering and interacting policy and programme initiatives that must include regulation of private and public providers, resources, and actions to strengthen public and primary mental healthcare and promotion of mental health competence in communities.

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