Year : 2020  |  Volume : 62  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 617--630

Mental health research on scheduled tribes in India

S V. Siddhardh Kumar Devarapalli1, Sudha Kallakuri1, Abdul Salam2, Pallab K Maulik2,  
1 Research and Development, George Institute for Global Health, Hyderabad, Telangana, India
2 University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; Prasanna School of Public Health, MAHE, Manipal, India

Correspondence Address:
S V. Siddhardh Kumar Devarapalli
George Institute for Global Health, Plot No. 57, Second Floor, Corporation Bank Building, Nagarjuna Circle, Punjagutta, Hyderabad - 500 082, Telangana


Background: The burden of mental illness among the scheduled tribe (ST) population in India is not known clearly. Aim: The aim was to identify and appraise mental health research studies on ST population in India and collate such data to inform future research. Materials and Methods: Studies published between January 1980 and December 2018 on STs by following exclusion and inclusion criteria were selected for analysis. PubMed, PsychINFO, Embase, Sociofile, Cinhal, and Google Scholar were systematically searched to identify relevant studies. Quality of the included studies was assessed using an appraisal tool to assess the quality of cross-sectional studies and Critical Appraisal Checklist developed by Critical Appraisal Skills Programme. Studies were summarized and reported descriptively. Results: Thirty-two relevant studies were found and included in the review. Studies were categorized into the following three thematic areas: alcohol and substance use disorders, common mental disorders and sociocultural aspects, and access to mental health-care services. Sociocultural factors play a major role in understanding and determining mental disorders. Conclusion: This study is the first of its kind to review research on mental health among the STs. Mental health research conducted among STs in India is limited and is mostly of low-to-moderate quality. Determinants of poor mental health and interventions for addressing them need to be studied on an urgent basis.

How to cite this article:
Devarapalli S V, Kallakuri S, Salam A, Maulik PK. Mental health research on scheduled tribes in India.Indian J Psychiatry 2020;62:617-630

How to cite this URL:
Devarapalli S V, Kallakuri S, Salam A, Maulik PK. Mental health research on scheduled tribes in India. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 23 ];62:617-630
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Full Text


Mental health is a highly neglected area particularly in low and middle-income countries (LMIC). Data from community-based studies showed that about 10% of people suffer from common mental disorders (CMDs) such as depression, anxiety, and somatic complaints.[1] A systematic review of epidemiological studies between 1960 and 2009 in India reported that about 20% of the adult population in the community are affected by psychiatric disorders in the community, ranging from 9.5 to 103/1000 population, with differences in case definitions, and methods of data collection, accounting for most of the variation in estimates.[2]

The scheduled tribes (ST) population is a marginalized community and live in relative social isolation with poorer health indices compared to similar nontribal populations.[3] There are an estimated 90 million STs or Adivasis in India.[4] They constitute 8.6% of the total Indian population. The distribution varies across the states and union territories of India, with the highest percentage in Lakshadweep (94.8%) followed by Mizoram (94.4%). In northeastern states, they constitute 65% or more of the total population.[5] The ST communities are identified as culturally or ethnographically unique by the Indian Constitution. They are populations with poorer health indicators and fewer health-care facilities compared to non-ST rural populations, even when within the same state, and often live in demarcated geographical areas known as ST areas.[4]

As per the National Family Health Survey, 2015–2016, the health indicators such as infant mortality rate (IMR) is 44.4, under five mortality rate (U5MR) is 57.2, and anemia in women is 59.8 for STs – one of the most disadvantaged socioeconomic groups in India, which are worse compared to other populations where IMR is 40.7, U5MR is 49.7, and anemia in women among others is 53.0 in the same areas.[6] Little research is available on the health of ST population. Tribal mental health is an ignored and neglected area in the field of health-care services. Further, little data are available about the burden of mental disorders among the tribal communities. Health research on tribal populations is poor, globally.[7] Irrespective of the data available, it is clear that they have worse health indicators and less access to health facilities.[8] Even less is known about the burden of mental disorders in ST population. It is also found that the traditional livelihood system of the STs came into conflict with the forces of modernization, resulting not only in the loss of customary rights over the livelihood resources but also in subordination and further, developing low self-esteem, causing great psychological stress.[4] This community has poor health infrastructure and even less mental health resources, and the situation is worse when compared to other communities living in similar areas.[9],[10]

Only 15%–25% of those affected with mental disorders in LMICs receive any treatment for their mental illness,[11] resulting in a large “treatment gap.”[12] Treatment gaps are more in rural populations,[13] especially in ST communities in India, which have particularly poor infrastructure and resources for health-care delivery in general, and almost no capacity for providing mental health care.[14]

The aim of this systematic review was to explore the extent and nature of mental health research on ST population in India and to identify gaps and inform future research.

 Materials and Methods

Search strategy

We searched major databases (PubMed, PsychINFO, Embase, Sociofile, Cinhal, and Google Scholar) and made hand searches from January 1980 to December 2018 to identify relevant literature. Hand search refers to searching through medical journals which are not indexed in the major electronic databases such as Embase, for instance, searching for Indian journals in IndMed database as most of these journals are not available in major databases. Physical search refers to searching the journals that were not available online or were not available online during the study years. We used relevant Medical Subject Heading and key terms in our search strategy, as follows: “Mental health,” “Mental disorders,” “Mental illness,” “Psychiatry,” “Scheduled Tribe” OR “Tribe” OR “Tribal Population” OR “Indigenous population,” “India,” “Psych*” (Psychiatric, psychological, psychosis).

Inclusion criteria

Studies published between January 1980 and December 2018 were included. Studies on mental disorders were included only when they focused on ST population. Both qualitative and quantitative studies on mental disorders of ST population only were included in the analysis.

Exclusion criteria

Studies without any primary data and which are merely overviews and commentaries and those not focused on ST population were excluded from the analysis.

Data management and analysis

Two researchers (SD and SK) initially screened the title and abstract of each record to identify relevant papers and subsequently screened full text of those relevant papers. Any disagreements between the researchers were resolved by discussion or by consulting with an adjudicator (PKM). From each study, data were extracted on objectives, study design, study population, study duration, interventions (if applicable), outcomes, and results. Quality of the included studies was assessed, independently by three researchers (SD, SK, and AS), using Critical Appraisal Checklist developed by Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP).[15] After a thorough qualitative assessment, all quantitative data were generated and tabulated. A narrative description of the studies is provided in [Table 1] using some broad categories.{Table 1}


Search results

Our search retrieved 2306 records (which included hand-searched articles), of which after removing duplicates, title and abstracts of 2278 records were screened. Of these, 178 studies were deemed as potentially relevant and were reviewed in detail. Finally, we excluded 146 irrelevant studies and 32 studies were included in the review [Figure 1].{Figure 1}

Quality of the included studies

Summary of quality assessment of the included studies is reported in [Table 2]. Overall, nine studies were of poor quality, twenty were of moderate quality, and three studies were of high quality. The CASP shows that out of the 32 studies, the sample size of 21 studies was not representative, sample size of 7 studies was not justified, risk factors were not identified in 28 studies, methods used were not sufficiently described to repeat them in 24 studies, and nonresponse reasons were not addressed in 24 studies. The most common reasons for studies to be of poor-quality included sample size not justified; sample is not representative; nonresponse not addressed; risk factors not measured correctly; and methods used were not sufficiently described to repeat them. Studies under the moderate quality did not have a representative sample; non-responders categories was not addressed; risk factors were not measured correctly; and methods used were not sufficiently described to allow the study to be replicated by other researchers.{Table 2}

The included studies covered three broad categories: alcohol and substance use disorders, CMD (depression, anxiety, stress, and suicide risk), socio-cultural aspects, and access to mental health services.

Alcohol and substance use disorders

Five studies reviewed the consumption of alcohol and opioid. In an ethnographic study conducted in three western districts in Rajasthan, 200 opium users were interviewed. Opium consumption was common among both younger and older males during nonharvest seasons. The common causes for using opium were relief of anxiety related to crop failure due to drought, stress, to get a high, be part of peers, and for increased sexual performance.[16]

In a study conducted in Arunachal Pradesh involving a population of more than 5000 individuals, alcohol use was present in 30% and opium use in about 5% adults.[17] Contrary to that study, in Rajasthan, the prevalence of opium use was more in women and socioeconomic factors such as occupation, education, and marital status were associated with opium use.[16] The prevalence of opium use increased with age in both sexes, decreased with increasing education level, and increased with employment. It was observed that wages were used to buy opium. In the entire region of Chamlang district of Arunachal Pradesh, female substance users were almost half of the males among ST population.[17] Types of substance used were tobacco, alcohol, and opium. Among tobacco users, oral tobacco use was higher than smoking. The prevalence of tobacco use was higher among males, but the prevalence of alcohol use was higher in females, probably due to increased access to homemade rice brew generally prepared by women. This study is unique in terms of finding a strong association with religion and culture with substance use.[18]

Alcohol consumption among Paniyas of Wayanad district in Kerala is perceived as a male activity, with many younger people consuming it than earlier. A study concluded that alcohol consumption among them was less of a “choice” than a result of their conditions operating through different mechanisms. In the past, drinking was traditionally common among elderly males, however the consumption pattern has changed as a significant number of younger men are now drinking. Drinking was clustered within families as fathers and sons drank together. Alcohol is easily accessible as government itself provides opportunities. Some employers would provide alcohol as an incentive to attract Paniya men to work for them.[19]

In a study from Jharkhand, several ST community members cited reasons associated with social enhancement and coping with distressing emotions rather than individual enhancement, as a reason for consuming alcohol. Societal acceptance of drinking alcohol and peer pressure, as well as high emotional problems, appeared to be the major etiology leading to higher prevalence of substance dependence in tribal communities.[20] Another study found high life time alcohol use prevalence, and the reasons mentioned were increased poverty, illiteracy, increased stress, and peer pressure.[21] A household survey from Chamlang district of Arunachal Pradesh revealed that there was a strong association between opium use and age, occupation, marital status, religion, and ethnicity among both the sexes of STs, particularly among Singhpho and Khamti.[15] The average age of onset of tobacco use was found to be 16.4 years for smoked and 17.5 years for smokeless forms in one study.[22]

Common mental disorders and socio-cultural aspects

Suicide was more common among Idu Mishmi in Roing and Anini districts of Arunachal Pradesh state (14.2%) compared to the urban population in general (0.4%–4.2%). Suicides were associated with depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and eating disorders. Of all the factors, depression was significantly high in people who attempted suicide.[24] About 5% out of 5007 people from thirty villages comprising ST suffered from CMDs in a study from West Godavari district in rural Andhra Pradesh. CMDs were defined as moderate/severe depression and/or anxiety, stress, and increased suicidal risk. Women had a higher prevalence of depression, but this may be due to the cultural norms, as men are less likely to express symptoms of depression or anxiety, which leads to underreporting. Marital status, education, and age were prominently associated with CMD.[14] In another study, gender, illiteracy, infant mortality in the household, having <3 adults living in the household, large family size with >four children, morbidity, and having two or more life events in the last year were associated with increased prevalence of CMD.[24] Urban and rural ST from the same community of Bhutias of Sikkim were examined, and it was found that the urban population experienced higher perceived stress compared to their rural counterparts.[25] Age, current use of alcohol, poor educational status, marital status, social groups, and comorbidities were the main determinants of tobacco use and nicotine dependence in a study from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.[22] A study conducted among adolescents in the schools of rural areas of Ranchi district in Jharkhand revealed that about 5% children from the ST communities had emotional symptoms, 9.6% children had conduct problems, 4.2% had hyperactivity, and 1.4% had significant peer problems.[27] A study conducted among the female school teachers in Jharkhand examined the effects of stress, marital status, and ethnicity upon the mental health of school teachers. The study found that among the three factors namely stress, marital status, and ethnicity, ethnicity was found to affect mental health of the school teachers most. It found a positive relationship between mental health and socioeconomic status, with an inverse relationship showing that as income increased, the prevalence of depression decreased.[28] A study among Ao-Nagas in Nagaland found that 74.6% of the population attributed mental health problems to psycho-social factors and a considerable proportion chose a psychiatrist or psychologist to overcome the problem. However, 15.4% attributed mental disorders to evil spirits. About 47% preferred to seek treatment with a psychiatrist and 25% preferred prayers. Nearly 10.6% wanted to seek the help of both the psychiatrist and prayer group and 4.4% preferred traditional healers.[28],[29] The prevalence of Down syndrome among the ST in Chikhalia in Barwani district of Madhya Pradesh was higher than that reported in overall India. Three-fourth of the children were the first-born child. None of the parents of children with Down syndrome had consanguineous marriage or a history of Down syndrome, intellectual disability, or any other neurological disorder such as cerebral palsy and epilepsy in preceding generations. It is known that tribal population is highly impoverished and disadvantaged in several ways and suffer proportionately higher burden of nutritional and genetic disorders, which are potential factors for Down syndrome.[30]

Access to mental health-care services

In a study in Ranchi district of Jharkhand, it was found that most people consulted faith healers rather than qualified medical practitioners. There are few mental health services in the regions.[31] Among ST population, there was less reliance and belief in modern medicine, and it was also not easily accessible, thus the health-care systems must be more holistic and take care of cultural and local health practices.[32]

The Systematic Medical Appraisal, Referral and Treatment (SMART) Mental Health project was implemented in thirty ST villages in West Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh. The key objectives were to use task sharing, training of primary health workers, implementing evidence-based clinical decision support tools on a mobile platform, and providing mental health services to rural population. The study included 238 adults suffering from CMD. During the intervention period, 12.6% visited the primary health-care doctors compared to only 0.8% who had sought any care for their mental disorders prior to the intervention. The study also found a significant reduction in the depression and anxiety scores at the end of intervention and improvements in stigma perceptions related to mental health.[14] A study in Gudalur and Pandalur Taluks of Nilgiri district from Tamil Nadu used low cost task shifting by providing community education and identifying and referring individuals with psychiatric problems as effective strategies for treating mental disorders in ST communities. Through the program, the health workers established a network within the village, which in turn helped the patients to interact with them freely. Consenting patients volunteered at the educational sessions to discuss their experience about the effectiveness of their treatment. Community awareness programs altered knowledge and attitudes toward mental illness in the community.[33] A study in Nilgiri district, Tamil Nadu, found that the community had been taking responsibility of the patients with the system by providing treatment closer to home without people having to travel long distances to access care. Expenses were reduced by subsidizing the costs of medicine and ensuring free hospital admissions and referrals to the people.[34] A study on the impact of gender, socioeconomic status, and age on mental health of female factory workers in Jharkhand found that the ST women were more likely to face stress and hardship in life due to diverse economic and household responsibilities, which, in turn, severely affected their mental health.[35] Prevalence of mental health morbidity in a study from the Sunderbans delta found a positive relation with psycho-social stressors and poor quality of life. The health system in that remote area was largely managed by “quack doctors” and faith healers. Poverty, illiteracy, and detachment from the larger community helped reinforce superstitious beliefs and made them seek both mental and physical health care from faith healers.[36] In a study among students, it was found that children had difficulties in adjusting to both ethnic and mainstream culture.[27] Low family income, inadequate housing, poor sanitation, and unhealthy and unhygienic living conditions were some environmental factors contributing to poor physical and mental growth of children. It was observed that children who did not have such risk factors maintained more intimate relations with the family members. Children belonging to the disadvantaged environment expressed their verbal, emotional need, blame, and harm avoidances more freely than their counterparts belonging to less disadvantaged backgrounds. Although disadvantaged children had poor interfamilial interaction, they had better relations with the members outside family, such as peers, friends, and neighbors.[37] Another study in Jharkhand found that epilepsy was higher among ST patients compared to non-ST patients.[31] Most patients among the ST are irregular and dropout rates are higher among them than the non-ST patients. Urbanization per se exerted no adverse influence on the mental health of a tribal community, provided it allowed preservation of ethnic and cultural practices. Women in the ST communities were less vulnerable to mental illness than men. This might be a reflection of their increased responsibilities and enhanced gender roles that are characteristic of women in many ST communities.[38] Data obtained using culturally relevant scales revealed that relocated Sahariya suffer a lot of mental health problems, which are partially explained by livelihood and poverty-related factors. The loss of homes and displacement compromise mental health, especially the positive emotional well-being related to happiness, life satisfaction, optimism for future, and spiritual contentment. These are often not overcome even with good relocation programs focused on material compensation and livelihood re-establishment.[39]


This systematic review is to our knowledge the first on mental health of ST population in India. Few studies on the mental health of ST were available. All attempts including hand searching were made to recover both published peer-reviewed papers and reports available on the website. Though we searched gray literature, it may be possible that it does not capture all articles. Given the heterogeneity of the papers, it was not possible to do a meta-analysis, so a narrative review was done.

The quality of the studies was assessed by CASP. The assessment shows that the research conducted on mental health of STs needs to be carried out more effectively. The above mentioned gaps need to be filled in future research by considering the resources effectively while conducting the studies.

Mental and substance use disorders contribute majorly to the health disparities. To address this, one needs to deliver evidence-based treatments, but it is important to understand how far these interventions for the indigenous populations can incorporate cultural practices, which are essential for the development of mental health services.[30] Evidence has shown a disproportionate burden of suicide among indigenous populations in national and regional studies, and a global and systematic investigation of this topic has not been undertaken to date. Previous reviews of suicide epidemiology among indigenous populations have tended to be less comprehensive or not systematic, and have often focused on subpopulations such as youth, high-income countries, or regions such as Oceania or the Arctic.[46] The only studies in our review which provided data on suicide were in Idu Mishmi, an isolated tribal population of North-East India, and tribal communities from Sunderban delta.[24],[37] Some reasons for suicide in these populations could be the poor identification of existing mental disorders, increased alcohol use, extreme poverty leading to increased debt and hopelessness, and lack of stable employment opportunities.[24],[37] The traditional consumption pattern of alcohol has changed due to the reasons associated with social enhancement and coping with distressing emotions rather than individual enhancement.[19],[20]

Faith healers play a dominant role in treating mental disorders. There is less awareness about mental health and available mental health services and even if such knowledge is available, access is limited due to remoteness of many of these villages, and often it involves high out-of-pocket expenditure.[35] Practitioners of modern medicine can play a vital role in not only increasing awareness about mental health in the community, but also engaging with faith healers and traditional medicine practitioners to help increase their capacity to identify and manage CMDs that do not need medications and can be managed through simple “talk therapy.” Knowledge on symptoms of severe mental disorders can also help such faith healers and traditional medicine practitioners to refer cases to primary care doctors or mental health professionals.

Remote settlements make it difficult for ST communities to seek mental health care. Access needs to be increased by using solutions that use training of primary health workers and nonphysician health workers, task sharing, and technology-enabled clinical decision support tools.[3] The SMART Mental Health project was delivered in the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh using those principles and was found to be beneficial by all stakeholders.[14]

Given the lack of knowledge about mental health problems among these communities, the government and nongovernmental organizations should collect and disseminate data on mental disorders among the ST communities. More research funding needs to be provided and key stakeholders should be involved in creating awareness both in the community and among policy makers to develop more projects for ST communities around mental health. Two recent meetings on tribal mental health – Round Table Meeting on Mental Health of ST Populations organized by the George Institute for Global Health, India, in 2017,[51] and the First National Conference on Tribal Mental Health organized by the Indian Psychiatric Society in Bhubaneswar in 2018 – have identified some key areas of research priority for mental health in ST communities. A national-level policy on mental health of tribal communities or population is advocated which should be developed in consultation with key stakeholders. The Indian Psychiatric Society can play a role in coordinating research activities with support of the government which can ensure regular monitoring and dissemination of the research impact to the tribal communities. There is a need to understand how mental health symptoms are perceived in different ST communities and investigate the healing practices associated with distress/disaster/death/loss/disease. This could be done in the form of cross-sectional or cohort studies to generate proper evidence which could also include the information on prevalence, mental health morbidity, and any specific patterns associated with a specific disorder. Future research should estimate the prevalence of mental disorders in different age groups and gender, risk factors, and the influence of modernization. Studies should develop a theoretical model to understand mental disorders and promote positive mental health within ST communities. Studies should also look at different ST communities as cultural differences exist across them, and there are also differences in socioeconomic status which impact on ability to access care.

Research has shown that the impact and the benefits are amplified when research is driven by priorities that are identified by indigenous communities and involve their active participation; their knowledge and perspectives are incorporated in processes and findings; reporting of findings is meaningful to the communities; and indigenous groups and other key stakeholders are engaged from the outset.[47] Future research in India on ST communities should also adhere to these broad principles to ensure relevant and beneficial research, which have direct impact on the mental health of the ST communities.

There is also a need to update literature related to mental health of ST population continuously; develop culturally appropriate validated instruments to measure mental morbidity relevant to ST population; and use qualitative research to investigate the perceptions and barriers for help-seeking behavior.[48]


The current review helps not only to collate the existing literature on the mental health of ST communities but also identify gaps in knowledge and provide some indications about the type of research that should be funded in future.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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