IT is a global challenge of mammoth proportions: according to the WHO, one in four individuals suffers from some form of mental illness. It is estimated that almost 800,000 people commit suicide every year, and by 2020, depression might overtake other diseases to become the leading cause of death across the world. Today, many countries are observing World Mental Health Day; this year’s theme aptly focuses on suicide prevention. Data indicates that suicides are prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, and are the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 29 years. Though Pakistan has the second youngest population in the world, the discourse around mental health remains extremely limited. The Pakistan Association of Mental Health estimates that more than 34pc of the population is affected by mental illness, but they remain deprived of adequate treatment, mainly due to the lack of facilities and the societal stigma attached to the subject. Reportedly, some 13,000 people commit suicide every year in Pakistan, and more than 95pc of them suffer from mental disorders.
Though Pakistan is one of the 194 signatories to the WHO’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan, the issue is seldom a subject of national discourse. It was first highlighted in the 1998 National Health Policy when mental health became a component of primary healthcare, but this effort came to naught. Then came the federal Mental Health Ordinance in 2001, and later the mental health acts were passed by Sindh and Punjab in 2013 and 2014 respectively. But these steps have neither altered how this issue continues to be perceived in society, nor have they helped in mainstreaming discussions around mental health and the provision of treatment facilities. Pakistan faces many complex developmental problems and there is ample evidence to suggest that mental health is directly related to developmental indices, eg economic growth and malnutrition. Currently, mental disorders cost the country up to Rs250bn. Pakistanis have braved terrorist attacks, political violence, natural disasters and internal displacement, among other hardships. Addressing these concerns will automatically lighten the burden of mental illness. At the same time, it is imperative that the government engage in a robust campaign to remove societal stigmas attached to the treatment of mental health problems. In fact, such treatment should be a part of overall health-related development in the country.
Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2019