Talking mental healthThe staggering number of suicides in the recent past is a wake-up call for us.
This Saturday, October 10, marks World Mental Health Day. As the world comes together in its fight against the coronavirus, this year’s slogan, ‘Mental health for all’, sounds pretty prescient for the world and for Nepal. During the first 74 days of the lockdown, 1,227 people across the country committed suicide. Among them, 149 were teenagers. Data of the Non-Communicable Disease and Mental Health Section of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division also show that 6,261 people took their own lives in the fiscal year 2019-20. It is an alarming increase in the number of suicides, compared to 5,785 in all of last year.
The National Mental Health Survey, Nepal 2020 also found that among the adults, 10 percent had experienced mental disorders in their lifetimes, and 4.3 percent were currently suffering from mental issues. The prevalence of lifetime mental disorder was highest among adults in Province 1 at 13.9 percent—13.3 percent in the 40-49 years age group and 12.4 percent among males. The nationwide prevalence of suicidality, also known as suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation, was found to be at 7.2 percent.
These unsettling figures represent a widespread prevalence of mental health issues in the country, and doctors have reported a sudden rise in mental health patients amid the heightened challenges brought about by the pandemic. The staggering number of suicides earlier this year makes the situation more critical, over 80 percent of which are associated with depression, according to psychiatrists at the Nepal Mental Hospital. Researchers say the ground reality could be starker as the majority of the people do not know what mental health is or shy away from talking about their problems due to trust issues, and also the stigma that surrounds mental health.
It is an extraordinary time with no sight of certainty. Children are limited to their houses or flats and glued to screens for their Zoom lessons. People have lost their jobs or seen massive pay cuts. Masks have become indispensable. We douse ourselves with hand sanitiser now and then, and some of us are also wearing personal protective equipment while venturing out. And inching closer to a year, our social life has been governed by physical distancing. Add to this, the increased exposure to distressing news and doom scrolling which spike our cortisol levels, opening another Pandora’s Box of risks associated with non-communicable diseases and conditions.
The impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health is already extremely concerning, according to the World Health Organisation which has stressed an urgent need to increase investment in service for mental health or risk a massive increase in mental health issues soon. The government cannot shy away from these prior warnings or continue to neglect the mental health sector. The grim indicators of the survey are serious concerns which need urgent resolution. It cannot afford to sit on research reports and do nothing beyond it, year after year.
Mental health specialists say cases of disorders such as depression, anxiety, psychosis and schizophrenia tend to increase significantly during high-stress situations like pandemics, natural disasters and wars, sometimes at rates of 3 to 5 percent. The latest Red Cross report also shows that the pandemic has affected the mental health of one in two people. It also highlights the urgent mental health needs of those who have been on the frontline of the pandemic to ensure they can continue to care appropriately for others. As a society too, we have mostly failed to address mental health issues, often ignoring conversations or shifting the blame to people who are fighting a huge battle within themselves. We have to take the pandemic as an opportunity to start a conversation on mental health issues.