THE fact that nearly 35pc of Pakistanis suffer from some form of mental illness and require psychological help — as per the Pakistan Association for Mental Health — should be enough to jolt our policymakers into action. Across the world, the long-term effects of Covid-19 have only exacerbated an existing phenomenon. The WHO was already expecting the number of global deaths caused by depression to surpass the fatalities resulting from cancer by 2020. Studies indicate that mental health illnesses are more prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, a category that includes Pakistan. Some 13,000 people commit suicide every year in the country, according to the PAMH, and out of them 95pc suffer from mental disorders. Lack of political attention to the issue and misconceptions about mental health has kept the discourse, and also the understanding of the larger impact, fairly limited. People with mental disorders are stigmatised. Their human rights are often violated on grounds of questionable cultural and ‘religious’ beliefs. In the larger context, however, it is also a fact that the common man finds it difficult to access life-saving medical intervention. Modern mental health facilities appear to be a distant dream to some; indeed, there is huge scarcity of specialists in the country who can effectively treat mental illnesses. Thus it is hardly surprising that the majority of sufferers do not receive any help or counselling. Many turn to quacks and so-called holy men for succour. The 2001 mental health ordinance barely delivered and after devolution the provinces have not made strong and effective mental health laws a priority.

Recently, we have seen several news reports about the soaring number of suicides in the country. This should be a wakeup call to have detailed conversations on the topic. Recognition of the problem is rising among policymakers, the courts and the police but progress has been slow on an issue of urgency. It is crucial for the government to take steps to synergise mental health interventions with the primary healthcare infrastructure in the country. Mental disorders should be accorded the status of a medical illness which they are. Moreover, a robust campaign is also needed to convince the public that there are treatments for mental illnesses and that no good is going to come out of stigmatising the sufferers. On World Mental Health Day today, we must note that mental illnesses are a cry for help which family members and the community at large should heed.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2021

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