Saturday September 25, 2021

Prioritizing mental health

The Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping our lifestyles in an unprecedented fashion. In a bid to flatten the curve, the WHO has categorically stated that lockdowns are the only way forward.

More than 3.9 billion people – or half of the world’s population – is under lockdown. However, there is one development which is sidelined in various societies, especially in developing nations like ours – lockdowns have taken a massive toll on Pakistan’s mental health.

No one talks about mental health because of the social taboos associated with it. Moreover, studies indicate that the Covid lockdowns have been even more devastating for women and girls. Women in Pakistan were already victims of oppression, discrimination and violence of all sort, but Covid-19 is exacerbating the gender gap in multiple ways.

Pakistan’s existing healthcare infrastructure is ill-prepared for tackling mental health. Social stigma, and lack of resources and advocacy have sidelined this very pivotal debate, which will now unleash new predicaments. Official government statistics state that around 50 million Pakistanis are suffering from mental health disorders, while there are only 500 psychiatrists in the whole country. This figure is particularly alarming, considering we have a population of 220 million.

In Pakistan, gender-based violence has only witnessed an upward trajectory due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Women and girls who are at risk of violence have been under lockdown with their abusers. Since domestic violence is considered as a family issue, many cases go unreported. Before this pandemic began, some 90 percent of Pakistani women were already experiencing some form of physical, emotional or psychological abuse, mostly from an intimate partner. Domestic violence not only disempowers women but also has an adverse effect on mental health.

In this ongoing pandemic scenario, societal expectations will force women to either quit their jobs or get fired and look after their out-of-school children. Gendered discrimination is indeed a global phenomenon but our benighted society is more prone to witness this, inevitably unleashing mental health issues and chances of domestic violence at home.

The pandemic has dwindled opportunities for women to become a part of the national economy. As unemployment is expected to rise in these uncertain times, women’s participation in the workforce will also face a major blow.

Even before the pandemic, Oxfam stated that only six percent of Pakistani women were incorporated in our formal economy while 80 percent were working in the agricultural sector. Not to forget, the country is already facing the new locust invasion threat, which will disrupt our agricultural sector on an unprecedented scale.

The Covid-19 pandemic is already exposing fault-lines in our choking healthcare infrastructure but still little attention is given to mental health. Globally, there has been an unprecedented rise in mental health concerns, with reports of depression and anxiety being the most common. A UK-based charity based on mental health concerns, reported a whopping 700 percent rise in calls to its helpline in just one day. Pakistan is no exception.

Lessons must be taken from Sindh’s resilience. The Sindh government has not only taken a lead to flatten the Covid-19 curve but also launched a mental helpline to help the people suffering from mental setbacks amid the lockdown. As the pandemic has affected literally everyone, addressing mental health needs is as imperative as ensuring people have food, a roof over their heads and other basic rights. A national mental health line is indeed the need of the hour.

Misogyny runs deep inside our society’s social fabric. Women have faced social, political and economic inequality and discrimination at almost every stage of their lives, but now is the right time to reset our attitudes’ towards women. We need to empower our women and girls, and enlighten them on the legal rights they have.

In this moment of crisis, where the pandemic has exacerbated our health systems, it is high time we brought Pakistan’s mental health discourse into the spotlight, which will adversely affect the disempowered women at home.

A sign of any thriving society can be seen by how women are being treated. Let us empower our women for a peaceful, prosperous and progressive Pakistan.

The writer is a member of the Sindh Assembly.