Sunday September 26, 2021

Mental healthcare

July 26, 2021

With increasing violent crimes in Pakistan – some related to drug abuse – there is a need to take stock of where our country stands in terms of mental healthcare. For people to be healthy just physical wellbeing is clearly not sufficient. A strong society consists of people who are psychologically stable. It is the responsibility of the state to provide its citizens both physical and mental healthcare. In Pakistan both facilities are scarce and underfunded; with mental healthcare at a particular disadvantage. According to the WHO Mental Health Atlas 2017 profile of Pakistan, there were only 11 psychiatric hospitals in the country. There is no evidence that in the past three years the government has added any new psychiatric hospital to the tally. Even if you count a dozen such hospitals in the country, the number is too low for a population of 225 million. Per the WHO’s report, there are only three outpatient mental health facilities exclusively for children and adolescents in Pakistan. Mental healthcare is provided mostly by the public health sector and the total number of qualified psychiatrists does not exceed the 500 mark. With this low number of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, mental healthcare is mostly in the hands of unqualified professionals and quacks. The Noor Mukadam case also points to the unregulated condition of the mental healthcare industry.

One can well imagine the situation of mental health in rural areas where there is hardly a psych hospital or treatment centre. Although the posts of district psychiatrists have also been created throughout the country, mostly these are vacant or filled by those who are not properly qualified. In Pakistan most psychiatrists are working in isolation, while there is a need for multidisciplinary services. Since psychological problems are widespread, and we have not thousands but millions of people suffering from psychological disorders. There is a range of psychiatric issues including PTSD. Some estimates have put as many as one-third of the total population in Pakistan as suffering from one psychological condition or another. Anxiety and depression are perhaps the most common ones which left unattended can spiral.

All this we cannot tackle by treatment alone, which is already in short supply. There is a need to revamp our education system to include life-skills education and training in which there should be a clear focus on how to live a healthy life. Many of our youth end up with a feeling of not fitting in society, particularly in the face of unstable economic, political, and social conditions. There is also a need to treat mental health problems not as a taboo but as real ones so that people become less reluctant to reveal a mental illness. In Pakistani culture, it has become so commonplace to approach spiritual or traditional healers that major cases of mental illnesses go without a scientific treatment. This also has to do a lot with how we teach our children and youth about science and other subjects. We need a society that learns to understand that mental health is now more than ever part of this evolving world. We need a state that caters to this with all its efforts.