October 10 marks World Mental Health Day, with this year’s theme seeking to remind us that ‘Mental Health is a universal human right’. Mental health is probably not what comes to most people’s minds when one thinks about human rights, even though good mental health is essential for people and is closely tied to life outcomes such as academic performance, employment, income, and overall health. As such, providing adequate access to mental healthcare and support for all is crucial to upholding people’s rights and tackling issues like poverty and inequality. It is also important to be sensitive to people’s mental health issues and not turn them into a source of discrimination. Sadly, the opposite is often the case, with the WHO noting that those struggling with mental health conditions are often the targets of discrimination and human rights violations and are often unable to access the care that they need. This is doubly the case in Pakistan, where there is still a strong stigma against those with mental health conditions. In such a climate, speaking out about one’s mental health issues can become a trial, let alone finding access to the care one needs afterwards.
In our case, ignoring and stigmatizing the population’s mental health needs has arguably helped lead to what can only be termed a national mental health emergency. The WHO estimates that mental disorders account for four per cent of our disease burden, with women suffering disproportionately, and that 24 million Pakistanis are in need of psychiatric assistance. According to other reports, an estimated one in three Pakistani women and one in four Pakistani men will go through an episode of depressive illness over their lifetime, as compared to a global rate of depressive illness of around 15 per cent. Even if one can overcome the disparaging and tactless remarks from relatives, friends, and co-workers that come with acknowledging that one is suffering from a mental health problem and needs help, many will find they have nowhere to go. There are a mere 600-700 psychiatrists in a country with around 250 million people. Under such circumstances, psychiatric or psychological treatment becomes reserved for the privileged and can easily be dismissed as a luxury concern. This is far from true.
In a country where jobs are scarce, incomes stagnant, the bills are always going up, and the only hope for a better life for many is to win the visa lottery and go abroad, it is far from surprising that a large chunk of the population goes through mental health issues at some point in their life, with certain groups being more vulnerable than others. The burden for improving life circumstances often falls on young students in Pakistan, who represent their family’s ticket to a better life. Sadly, young people often have nowhere to go when it comes to problems like anxiety and depression. While awareness around mental health issues is growing, with the government launching a mental health mobile app and helpline in April, the scale of our mental health crisis requires that we increase the number of mental health professionals and ensure that schools and workplaces pay attention to their employee’s mental health.