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They’re Not Doctors But…

In a new set of studies published in the journal The Lancet, scientists demonstrate how, when it comes to improving your mental health, you don’t necessarily need to see a professional to get positive results.

The study, co-authored by Indian mental health advocate Vikram Patel, looks at how treatment provided by nonprofessional lay persons impacted the mental health outcomes of persons living with either severe depression or an alcohol use disorder.

What the scientists discovered, reports NPR, is that despite the fact that they were receiving their care from a lay person instead of licensed mental health professional, such as psychiatrist or psychologist, the people living with mental illness still experienced positive mental health outcomes, such as an increased rate of recovery and decreased alcohol consumption.

This is particularly significant given that the study participants live in India, where there is drastic shortage of mental health professionals. The US has a shortage, and we have 124 psychiatrists per million people. Compare that to India where they have only three psychiatrists per million people. And apparently they have even fewer psychologists.

I thought this article was worth highlighting for (at least) two reasons.

For one thing, this new study demonstrates that you do not need to be a rocket scientist – or a “shrink” – to be able to help someone cope with, or even begin to recover from, their mental illness. That is profoundly powerful, because it means that you don’t have to be an expert to help provide relief for another human being who is suffering. Wow. I find that very encouraging and empowering, especially as someone who often doubts my own value and efficacy with regard to alleviating the suffering of others.

Now that being said, I do not believe that a lay person is “just as good as” a psychologist or psychiatrist. If you have a serious mental illness, like if you have any kind of a serious illness, you should see a professional who is qualified and trained to identify and effectively treat what it is that ails you. In my opinion, people do themselves a disservice when they opt not to seek professional care out of fear or avoidance, and I believe as mental health advocates we need to encourage people to seek an appropriate level of care (while also calling professionals to task so that they are effectively meeting our needs).

The other reason I think this article was worth this attention is that it brings attention to the great need for mental healthcare that exists in the world. Part of why studies like this are being conducted is because there is so great a need for mental health care that they are actually to the point where they need to determine if non-professional care can help meet the otherwise unmet need. India has fewer than one psychologist for every 333,333 people. At the small liberal arts college I attended, they have more than one psychologist for every thousand people. That’s a mind boggling disparity!

While it is indeed powerful to think that each of us, with the proper training (of only three weeks), can have a measurably positive impact on the lives of people with mental illness, no one should be restricted to having their mental health needs met by someone who has such a limited knowledge of the human mind, acquired in a workshop setting (of only three weeks). Everyone – whether rich or poor and whether in this country or abroad – deserves to have adequate mental health care provided by a properly trained mental health professional. Until we get to that point? Yes, let’s use as many lay people as possible to spread information about effective mental health habits and first aid out to the masses. But as mental health advocates, let’s not settle for less, but rather let’s work to dramatically increase the number of practicing mental health professionals around the world so that not only affluent American students get to enjoy good mental health.


2 Replies to “They’re Not Doctors But…”

  1. Valerie says:

    This is an excellent blog post!
    As I was reading, I was thinking about the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) because it started with two parents who wanted to support each other due to their families living with mental health challenges.
    I recently took a course with my mom called “family to family” where they teach 12 weeks to caregivers, siblings, etc. about how to support a loved one with a mental illness. Each week we grew closer and closer and provided support for each other as well. The two teaching the class are parents of a young adult living with schizophrenia. They aren’t doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.; they are people with lived experience who care about others.
    I think in those 12 weeks, I received more support and education than I ever thought I could and I feel more empowered to train to teach this course myself.

    In the article, did India mention Peer Support specifically? Our 80 hour course does pack in a lot of education to make us professional, yet non-clinical. I don’t know if India has a course like the one we take through Recovery University.

  2. bgayTurningPoint says:

    Thank Valerie! I’m glad the post was helpful. I don’t know the exact model used by the Indian researchers, however if you click on the links “severe depression” and “alcohol use disorder” it should link you to the actual journal articles which would give greater detail on the methods of the research study, including the sort of training provided to the volunteer counselors.

    I think it must be at least somewhat comparable to NAMI’s Family To Family program. What a great program. I took that this past Spring with my mother and learned a lot of useful information about the brain and various mental illnesses. We also got to hear from people with lived experience which was very helpful (and powerful). I hope to lead one of their classes in the future myself – I think it’s very important work.


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