By Zulnash Shaukat
COVID-19 has increased the workload on the health sector as the cases continue to increase while the curve has still not flattened out. As the world heads towards an uncertain and unchartered territory, people are going into a survivalist mode. Amidst these circumstances, where burden on healthcare has increased, a wide segment of society that faces mental health concerns is being overlooked. The ignorance of the differential impact of the epidemic on people facing mental health challenges may augment the already existing health inequalities.
Pakistan and the State of Mental Health
There is already a lack of mental health awareness in Pakistan at a mass level, including the prevalence of taboos surrounding psychotherapy. The state of COVID-19 lockdown may serve as an additional stressor. One explanation is that due to conditions of confinement, the mental health of not only those who are already suffering from a spectrum of issues, but also the healthy minds can be affected. While many see the lockdown as a way to reconnect with loved ones and spend time with family, people living in abusive households are more vulnerable now with almost no avenues to escape. The lack of focus on mental health and absence of support platforms worsen the wave of fear, anxiety and depression caused by the epidemic. Amongst this vulnerable population, medical staff, security forces such as police, daily-wage earners, people living alone, and the graduating Class of 2020 are few of the worst hit groups.
The policy response to COVID-19 in Pakistan should also focus on support mechanisms and guidelines to protect the mental health of individuals. An independent e-panel discussion was conducted by Learners’ Republic, attended by mental health practitioners and public policy professionals. The discussion was organized to call for a proactive approach instead of a reactive one.
Dr. Faryal Razzaq, CEO of The FEEL and an Assistant Professor at Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, highlighted that the uncertain times of today calls for a training of teachers and relevant personnel from academics to provide support mechanisms to students and also provide relief to them. Dr Razzaq opined to pursue both digital resources and on ground outreach to support vulnerable members of the population. She said, “The term social distancing has a wrong connotation associated with it and implies severance of connection. The term she uses is “physical distance with social responsibility”.
Ms. Hira Jamil, a clinical psychologist mentioned that mental health issues among the youth are growing and many of them remain unable to find emotional support from families as depression and anxiety are considered a taboo in our society. She highlighted to enhance awareness that visiting a mental health practitioner should be considered as visiting a physician for any disease.
As pointed out by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its directive on COVID-19 and mental health, a former Federal Secretary endorsed the responsible reporting in order to avoid sensationalization of information which creates further panic amongst the already stressed people. Furthermore, the public policy arena also needs to identify the possible implications of mental health deterioration on socio-economic progress and provide relief to the affected accordingly.
People with mental health concerns can be exposed to barriers in accessing timely health services because of the underlying systemic discrimination against them in health-care settings in Pakistan. While the long-term goal is to strengthen mental health advocacy programs, the need of the hour is to control the exacerbation of mental health problems right now.