There has been no dearth of reports warning of mental health crises in the UK in the past few months. Social workers have cited a 25% rise in cases of mental ill health in children and young people since 2020. Recognising how socioeconomic inequality goes hand-in-hand with mental health, the Levelling Up White Paper aims to have 900,000 people referred to social prescribing therapies to support mental health beyond medication.
Whilst awareness and acceptance of mental health issues, as well as the resources for addressing them, are commonplace in the UK, unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, which lack both the awareness and capacity to address the growing mental health crisis post COVID-19.
The widespread stigma and lack of awareness means that almost 90% of people in need of treatment in Pakistan lack access to any support. There are fewer than 500 psychologists and 400 psychiatrists for the population of 216 million people. Alcohol and drug dependency, sexual assault, trauma, neglect and poverty, exacerbated by COVID-19, can worsen mental health problems.
Umme Habiba, a mental health coordinator in Pakistan, notes that many community members in Pakistan take young girls facing mental ill- health to spiritual healers, believing that the issues are caused by demons that can be exorcised through physical torture.
Bangladesh faces a similar dilemma. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Bangladeshi adolescents, yet most Bangladeshis have no access to mental health services, and they encounter stigma and social exclusion.
It is critical to end the stigma around mental health before delivering any solutions. However, stigma is not just about a lack of acceptance of mental health issues. It also involves the lack of understanding of how to deal with these issues, where to seek help and how to support those suffering. It is about both the accessibility and affordability of seeking help.
The British Asian Trust, in collaboration with local in-country partners, has been facilitating conversations about mental health and teaching individuals how to support themselves and others over the past eight years.
Our mass media campaigns have reached 16 million people with mental health messaging through television and social media. In low income urban communities, we have gone door-to-door to start critical conversations about mental health with 270,000 people. Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, we set up the Mental Health Covid Response programme, which provided emergency support to 140,000 individuals during the pandemic.
Together with our partners, the British Asian Trust has also been instrumental in establishing the Pakistan Mental Health Coalition, that brings together organisations and experts passionate about mental health under one platform. The Coalition enables collaboration, learning and provides strategic leadership to key issues.
Recently, the Coalition successfully campaigned for the passing of a Bill for the decriminilisation of suicide in Pakistan.
Despite these successes, much work remains to be done to build the capacity of the mental health ecosystem in these countries. There are many more conversations yet to be initiated – between health professionals, workplace colleagues, students and teachers, as well as families and friends. As we emerge from the pandemic, we also need to train more family practitioners and expand service delivery of our mental health interventions.
Throughout Ramadan, the British Asian Trust is encouraging Zakat and donations as part of its Peace of Mind campaign, which aims to alleviate the mental health crisis impacting millions in in South Asia. Just £10 can give five people access to support from a mental health professional for a month.
Visit https://www.britishasiantrust.org/appeals/peace-of-mind/ to learn how you can bring peace of mind to those who need your help.
By Sanaa Ahmad, Mental Health Manager (Pakistan), British Asian Trust.