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Why mental health is an ignored phenomenon in Pakistan

In addition to affecting physical health, Covid-19 has severely impacted mental health. However, in Pakistan, mental health is given a low priority. According to Afsheen Talat, the budget of Pakistan allocates less than 1% to public health and there is no separate budget for mental health.

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Mental health is a very complex phenomenon that instigates the life of many people today.  On one side people are jolting through medication and the repercussions of the illness, the negative side effects of the medicines, decrease in cognitive and physical capacities, a sense of social barriers/ social distancing, and on the other hand, people suffering from mental illness become prey to stigmas pertaining to the society, community, peers/family and even their own self. These stigmas hinder their social and communal activities and play an important role in disturbing the set goals of the people suffering.

Despite the quality of the psychiatric treatments have become more effective over the course of five decades, most people still do not seek medical help for the treatment of their mental illnesses because of the stigmas sufficed with being mentally ill. The fear of being tagged a mental patient and the further isolation from the job opportunities and daily social activities, force the people to remain quiet and hide their mental illness, regardless of how chronic they become.

Read more: Reforms needed to destigmatize mental illness in Pakistan

In order to dodge the perceptions and the stigmas attached to mental illness, some people hide their illnesses and don’t voice them out in order to live a normal life away from the tag of being called mentally ill. This is called “Label Avoidance”. The people belonging to this group keep their illnesses to themselves and in fear of society being stereotyped or prejudiced do not seek treatment.

A lot of factors play their specific role in triggering mental ailments; different people have different reactions to traumatic situations depending upon their mental capacity to withstand shocks and trauma. The fundamental cause of less emphasis on mental health is its culturally dominant alternative, which is supernatural reasons, such as witchcraft, evil eye, sorcery, supernatural influence on a person’s body, etc.

Read more: Can brain size play a key role in mental disorders?

Why diseases spread

During a pandemic outbreak, the psychological reactions of the target population play a significant role in the spread of the infectious disease and the possible psychological distress that may be caused by the outbreak. Amidst the pandemic, typically the psychological factor is not paid heed to, and less or no resources are allocated to cater to the mental health needs and wellbeing.

This less emphasis on mental healthcare may be understood during the critical level of the disease outbreak where the priority is emergency treatment, testing, containing the disease, and lessening the impact of the disease outbreak.

A study conducted in China between the first two months of 2020 showed appalling results. Out of 1210 respondents, 54% of people were moderate to severely affected by COVID-19, while 29% of the people showed anxiety symptoms, and 17% showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression.

Read more: Mental health is one of the biggest pandemic consequences we’ll face in 2021

These are extremely troublesome figures. During the swine flu outbreak in 2009, a study was conducted of the mental health patients that showed that people with neurotic disorders showing moderate to severe symptoms were in significant numbers.

There are many valid reasons not to overlook the mental health element during the pandemic. One of the most important reasons is that psychological health controls the basic mechanism of adherence in human beings, it determines the course of action that people take to cope up with the significant physical, psychological, economic, and social losses.

The present situation shows the importance of psychological healthcare during COVID-19. Some of the prominent psychological reactions to the current pandemic include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, fear of the unknown, defensive attitude, etc.

Read more: Understanding ‘Human Trauma’ in COVID-19 Times

Mental health problems in Pakistan

Pakistan falls under the category of a developing country. Owing to its allocation, it is host to many psychological problems, that may be due to serious internal and external factors like political upheavals, social boycotting, economic vulnerability, job saturation, cultural and ethnic influence, and gender inequality.

These issues have stimulated more health glitches during the crucial time of pandemic when more people are vulnerable to joblessness, poor healthcare facilities, and increased psychological distress.

Read more: COVID-19 can spark a major mental health crisis: UN

As per a study conducted in China, the psychological impact of the virus was moderate to severe among the people. But there is no data available for Pakistan. Although the psychological burden is severe due to overcrowding, low literacy rates, and lack of awareness, people tend to ignore the mental health impacts.

The fear and stress that come along with the virus which has no cure yet are overwhelming. As per the studies conducted, apart from the trauma of the illness, the people also had a fear of being stigmatized, unemployed and may not become the reason to spread the virus.

Read more: The gig economy is helping tackle COVID-19 unemployment in Pakistan

Few mental health facilities in Pakistan

Pakistan’s increasing economic burdens on mental illnesses have been given very low priority. The budget of Pakistan allocates less than 1% to public health and there is no separate budget for mental health. According to the World Health Organization-Assessment instrument for Mental Health Systems (WHO_AIMS) in 2009, only 0.4% of the health spending is allocated to mental health.

The mental health facilities are 3729 and there are only 5 mental hospitals, which have 5056 beds and a total of 342 psychiatrists. There have been no specific policy amendments made since 2009 and the mental illness burden has continued to rise in all age groups.

Read more: Mental health during coronavirus: Kashmiri children suffering

As a young intellectual humbly trying to document the mental health conditions of Pakistan in the pandemic, it has been an eye-opening journey. There are only a handful of mental hospitals facilitating thousands of individuals.

With an oversaturation in the public hospitals, the patients are forced to seek treatment from private psychiatrists, who charge a whopping amount per session. It is indeed an intriguing question that why no one is discussing the vicious psychological impacts of COVID-19?

The author is an MPhil scholar of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics(PIDE). She is currently working in an international NGO. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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