Despite an average of 10,000 suicides per year, Pakistan remains one of the very few countries in the world that does not have an official suicide prevention hotline. This blatant negligence on part of the national health system is merely the tip of the iceberg with regards to the dire state of mental health facilities. The inadequacy and inefficiency of Pakistan’s national health services extend to the mental health sector as well. Both have the root of their problems entrenched in a lack of funds, absence of legislation and ineffective policymaking.
For the current fiscal year, the government allocated only $500 million to health care, which is minute considering the military’s $10 billion budget. Equally alarming is the fact that only 0.40% of the $500 million were dedicated to mental health related expenditures. As a result, there is a severe shortage of facilities available. In fact, the country’s five mental hospitals are expected to cater to a population of 140 million, while 300 psychiatrists are entrusted with the mammoth task treating 10 million patients nationwide.
Additionally, in a report compiled by doctors at the Agha Khan University, Pakistan suffers a loss of Rs.250 billion annually due to non-medical consequences of mental illnesses. This in itself should be enough to warrant a rethinking of existing legislation and policies. However, progress in this regard remains sluggish and the country. In spite of increasing public sentiment and regard for mental illnesses, the Mental Health Ordinance of 2001 remains the only major effort made by policy makers after the formulation of the first mental health policy 1997.
The absence of a feasible framework to counter this impending problem has led to non-governmental or not for profit organisations chipping in and covering up for the state’s incompetence. While this might yield temporary respite, it cannot be considered as a long term solution, nor can these organisations provide the specialised and extensive facilities required by those suffering from mental illnesses.
The writer is a freelance columnist.