Is mental health illness the next pandemic?
One in five people in Bangladesh is affected by anxiety and depression. There is only one mental health professional for 100,000 people.
Like many other countries in the world, the Coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on population health in Bangladesh where millions are infected, and the largest epidemic death toll for decades. It has also disrupted tens of millions of lives including seasonal workers who could not travel or earn, children unable to attend schools or see classmates and friends, family, businesses with no customers in lockdown, and people left without the support networks they normally rely on to cope with lost jobs or broken relationships.
Before the COVID pandemic, 21% of the adult Bangladeshi population were already estimated to have a mental health issues, with 11% suffering from depression and anxiety. More recent studies during the pandemic have shown a big increase, with up to 70% of adults affected by sleep loss, loneliness or anxiety. Isolation, unemployment, broken relationships, personal loss and grieving due to the death of close friends and family members, and uncertainty regarding the future are all shaping increased anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 14,436 suicides took place in Bangladesh between March 2020 and February 2021. And this is the sad tip of a big mental health iceberg, with millions of the population suffering from anxiety, depression, and trauma disorders (PTSD). Unfortunately, many without even realising that what they are going through is a disease, and like any physical health issue it can be managed through medical support and intervention.
Many sufferers are reluctant to reach out for help because mental illness or emotional distress is seen as a sign of weakness even though it is not, as there is a stigma attached to it.
While everyone is facing the hit, children and young adults are the most affected. At least 151 students have committed suicide since the school closure in March 2020 till June 2021.
Sufferers also do not reach out because there are only a few solutions readily available. There are less than 2,000 mental health professionals in a country of more than 164 million people or around 1 per 1,00,000 people. Another major drawback is that these mental health providers are concentrated in urban areas, leaving 100 million in rural Bangladesh with limited support. However, the government is acting and making steady progress.
But to close the access gap, new solutions and innovative thinking are required. Recently, several NGOs have been established exclusively for mental healthcare, for example, Moshal Mental Health whose founder was acknowledged with the Diana Award, and Lifespring have helped many corporate organisations provide mental health support to employees. Many healthcare companies have also extended their support to further strengthen the government's efforts.
In such a backdrop, we first need to create a culture where people can open up and express their pent-up frustrations so that no one feels on edge and resorts to something detrimental. As people feel shy to talk about mental health problems, healthcare providers need to come up with solutions that will keep the privacy and identity of the people suffering from mental health problems secure. Just like Digital Hospital's initiative to facilitate the vulnerable people with private and secure online doctor chat on mental health and wellbeing, there could many be other similar initiatives that will inspire people to share their problems related to mental well-being.
Moreover, our society, as a whole, needs to be more sympathetic towards everyone so that people do not feel afraid to talk about the problems they are going through. It is better to be late than never. And the time is now. With several digital solutions for mental health and wellbeing popping up, we need to remember that good mental health support can be made available to all.
Andrew Smith is a Co-Founder, Digital Healthcare Solutions, Digital Hospital; whereas Dr Sharmin Zahan is the Head of Health Ecosystem Development and Dr Khaled Hasan is the Head of Clinical Operations of the same organisation.