By Zumer Zia
It cannot come as a surprise to anyone that Pakistan is in the midst of a mental health crisis in the wake of COVID-19. It is a rupture of enormous proportions in the history of the world, and one that has particularly affected women, leading to a rapid decline in their mental health. The problem is exacerbated due to the stigmatization of mental health issues in Pakistan, and lack of suitable policy interventions at the national or federal levels.
Women were, and are continuing to face, the ‘triple burden’ of responsibilities as schools and workplaces shifted online. Working women balanced careers along with domestic work and childcare, with little or no help from their partners. As online learning commenced, they served as teachers for their children as well as caretakers for the elderly. According to a research done by Saida Waheed Gender Initiative at LUMS, the mental health of women frontline healthcare workers deteriorated rapidly as opposed to their counterparts, with the ‘triple burden’ of work attributed as the leading cause. Elsewhere, a study concluded that women academics lagged in productivity due to the very same reason.
As lockdown was imposed throughout the country, many women were confined in close quarters with abusive spouses and relatives, isolated from familial and community support structures. Punjab and KPK registered significant increases in the number of domestic violence cases, and it is acknowledged that many cases go unreported. Helplines and shelters were non-operational throughout the country during these critical months, as they were deemed ‘non-essential’ services. The mental health impact of this ‘shadow pandemic’, though not quantified yet, must be immense.
The concerns of new mothers and pregnant women during the pandemic, has been virtually unrecognized in mainstream media. Women experience increased levels of stress and anxiety before birth and postpartum, and isolation can only intensify and trigger such emotions. Economic apprehensions contribute hugely to the deterioration of mental health, and sectors traditionally dominated by women, including hospitality and education, suffered the most job losses. In fact, a study revealed that one in four women are considering downsizing their careers or exiting the workforce as a result of issues created by the pandemic. High stress jobs, like in the healthcare sector, are also dominated by women.
In this situation, it is essential that the federal and provincial governments adopt a coherent and transparent approach for the design and amendment of mental health policies. Significance should be given to the diverse experiences and requirements of women, and the general response to the virus needs to take account of this demographic. The policies need to be designed on the basis of appropriate and relevant data, of which there is a dearth in Pakistan. To alleviate the stigma associated with mental health issues in the country, awareness programs need to be relayed via mediums like television, social media, newspapers, and the radio with the participation of mental health practitioners. Furthermore, an emergency hotline should be established which operates round the clock and provides support services. Counselling and psychotherapy need to be provided via telephone and online platforms, keeping in view the limitations imposed by COVID-19. Traditionally, hospitals have not given precedence to mental health problems. However, King Edward Medical University has recently ensured that psychiatrists are available round the clock on the premises. Other hospitals should follow suit and establish such services to cater to more severe cases. To deal with the issue of accessibility, mobile mental health teams can reach out to remote areas, and primary mental health training can be provided to Lady Health Workers.
To address domestic violence, shelters should be termed as essential services, with an increase in their capacity. Also, awareness should be spread about helplines and support services. It is also imperative that police be directed to acknowledge complaints of domestic violence immediately. The upgradation of the Women Safety App under the auspices of the UNFPA and the Government of the Punjab is a positive step towards mitigating the crisis of the ‘shadow pandemic’, undoubtedly an important contributor to mental health issues.
Pakistan stands at the brink of a mental health disaster, which has affected women disproportionately. It is absolutely essential that the government recognizes the seriousness of the issue and takes relevant steps to mitigate the crisis.