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Mental health epidemic

THERE are mounting stressors in the day-to-day existence of average Pakistanis. Rising inflation and unemployment coupled with existing sociocultural pressures are making life more difficult. Last year`s floods left millions suffering from anxiety, depression and trauma. Even before that, statistics showed that every fifth person in this country suffers from a psychological disorder; in 2021, according to WHO, 20,000 people committed suicide in Pakistan. Yet there are precious few avenues for those in need of help: more than 75pc of them receive no treatment. Last week, speakers at a conference in Larkana on mental health rued the extreme paucity of mental health professionals in Pakistan, which has only 270 psychiatrists and no more than 500 clinical psychologists for a population of 220m plus. People suffering from mental disorders who cannot access relevant specialists are unable to fulfill their personal, social and professional potential; the stigma attached to mental illness keeps sufferers marginalised and isolated, further exacerbating their condition. Considering the numbers involved, this is a tragedy on a vast scale.

There is not only a dearth of psychiatrists in Pakistan, but those that do exist are concentrated in urban clusters; there are also inequities between provinces. Therefore, patients in many parts of the country must travel long distances to access their services. Moreover, because of the pressure on the limited number of mental health professionals, consultations can be shockingly brief sometimes only five to 10 minutes long. It is a situation ripe for misdiagnosis and/or unethical practices that can leave patients even worse off, or disillusioned with modern lines of treatment. The hurdles in the way of reliable mental healthcare encourage many people to turn to quacks offering `traditional` and unscientific methods of `healing`, which can often take the form of maltreatment. The government must give mental healthcare the importance it deserves, announce a national mental health policy and introduce incentives to attract more individuals to this sector.