Mental health care is receiving increased attention in low-income countries with the availability of a wide range of effective evidence-based treatments for acute and chronic mental disorders amidst scarce resources. Availability of these treatments and competent human resources enables the use of a variety of interventions at several levels of care for persons with mental illness and makes it feasible to ensure observance of quality in the treatment approaches that go beyond institutionalisation. However, unlike developed countries which are endowed with many and relatively well-paid mental health specialists, low-income countries face a dire shortage of highly trained mental health professionals in addition to several other challenges. In light of this, there is need to re-assess the role of the few available psychiatrists, with a shift to new core tasks such as designing mental health care programmes that can be delivered by non-specialists, building their health system's capacity for delivering care, including supporting front-line health workers through support supervision, raising awareness on mental health and patients’ rights in addition to promoting essential research. This requires a fundamental paradigm shift from the current training for mental health specialists to a public health oriented approach and providing incentives for community engagement.