Desperate measuresGovernment must allocate adequate budget for mental health
After the Great Earthquake struck Kathmandu on April 25, Binita Adhikari had to shift to a tent as the tremor badly damaged her house in Kadaghari. It did not help that the 25-year old was heavily pregnant with twins. And unexpectedly, she delivered the babies exactly one month prior to the due date. Sadly, the tremor turned out to be a lot more devastating for Bishowrupa Prajapati of Thimi. She lost her baby in the 26th week of her pregnancy. Many hospitals in Kathmandu reported an increase in miscarriages and births of premature babies in the aftermath of the quake. A similar phenomenon was observed in Chile after the 2005 Tarapaca earthquake. Then in early July, the Nepal Police revealed that the number of suicides in Kathmandu had increased after the quake. Sixty-seven cases of suicide were reported from Mid-April to Mid-June, of which 22 people killed themselves due to family disputes, 19 had a history of mental illness and seven reportedly killed themselves due to the trauma of losing loved ones and damage to property in the quake.
While the instances of early childbirth due to stress and a rise in suicides might not seem very alarming on the outset, they demand serious attention given the already worrying state of mental health of Nepalis. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 15 people kill themselves every day in Nepal. A 2014 report, titled ‘Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative’, places Nepal only second to Sri Lanka in the list of countries with the highest number of suicides per capita in South Asia. So, as the world marks the Suicide Prevention Day today, it is imperative that the government make a greater effort to address the mental health problems of its population. Merely issuing routine press statements that express concern for the cause will not do.
First, there is a need for a comprehensive study on the impact of the quake on the mental health of the people in the 14-most affected districts. The research could build on available anecdotal evidence on the rise in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among the quake affected and exacerbation of symptoms among those who showed signs of depression even before the quake. The data maintained by the police, organisations working on mental health and hospitals could be a starting point. Second, the government needs to rethink its policy of treating suicide as a criminal offence. Doing so hinders the much needed discourse on why suicides occur in the first place. It also prevents people who are contemplating suicide from talking to others about it and seeking help. Third, as majority of suicides are preceded by warning signs, it is important to make families and communities aware about them. It could be done by carrying out extensive mental health awareness campaigns. Lastly, all of this needs serious investment in mental health which is currently minimal and nil for suicide prevention. This must change.