Mental health is one of the more neglected areas of public health. Every 40 seconds, a person dies by committing suicide. Decaying mental health not only inflicts self-harm but can also create a slippery slope. Only a few weeks ago, a man with deteriorating mental health, murdered four of his family members in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He is just one of the billion people living with a mental disorder globally.
We are approaching the end of 2020, a year stamped with a series of unfortunate events. With the coronavirus crisis came a rise in severe mental health problems. According to the World Health Organization, although the pandemic has induced a substantial amount of worry and concern, it has also had a considerable impact on public mental health, even more so for women and children.
Mental health is considered a taboo in Pakistan mainly because of the lack of education on the subject. This is because of an absence of political will for that. It is unfortunate that in low and middle income countries, more than 75% of people with mental, neurological and substance use disorders receive no treatment for their conditions at all — and Pakistan is one of them. Official government statistics state that around 50 million Pakistanis are suffering from mental health disorders, while there are only 400 psychiatrists in the whole country. This figure is particularly alarming, considering we have a population of 220 million.
Recently, there has been a noticeable rise in conversations about mental health in Pakistan, and thus an increase in awareness for a topic that has been considered a stigma for years. It’s still a stigma, and there is great advocacy attached to this niche in public health, and although the pace of progress has been slow with a lot of room for improvement, the little progress it has made is praiseworthy.
As the Pakistani youth struggles to cope with these ongoing challenges brought on by Covid-19, the increasing stress has increase the risk of the occurrence of mental health symptoms. There are very few options in Pakistan for the youth seeking support to help treat stress, depression, etc.
The pandemic has made it very clear that investing in public health is the need of the hour and a serious commitment needs to be made towards scaling up investment in the mental health sector. Countries spend on average only 2% of their health budgets on mental health, and it’s alarming how we don’t even have that data for Pakistan.
The pandemic has affected everyone regardless of age, gender and race. Addressing mental health needs is as imperative as ensuring people have food, a roof over their heads and other basic rights. Pakistan’s youth is the country’s future and we need to make it a priority to support their mental health during this unprecedented time. The age bracket of 12-25 is critical for brain development and we must make this investment in the foundation of our country’s future.
Sindh’s resilience has been commendable. The provincial government took a lead to flatten the Covid-19 curve and also launched a mental helpline to help those suffering from mental setbacks amid the lockdown.
Organisations such as doctHERs have also been raising mental health awareness by adding mental health counseling to the list of medical services provided in their smart telemedicine clinics nationwide.
The World Mental Health Day gives us an opportunity to come together and begin addressing the historic neglect of mental health and initiatives like these will expand access and reduce structural barriers for individuals especially our youth, from all walks of life. We must now also work on expanding this sector of public health and invest in creating mental health career pipelines for the upcoming generation.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 11th, 2020.
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