NC deliberates on rising suicides and mental health issues

By Tandin Wangchuk

The Social and Cultural Affairs Committee of the National Council reported that a review was undertaken to assess the situation of suicide and mental health issues in Bhutan and determine their root causes.

This was also done to strengthen preventive and treatment programs while presenting the Interim Review of Suicide and Mental Health Issues in Bhutan to the House,.

The committee highlighted that the major risk factors for suicide include mental disorder, especially depression, and neurological disorders, cancer and HIV infection. The Committee also highlighted that Bhutan was ranked 54th in the world in terms of deaths by suicides in 2018.

It reported that from 2018-2020, a total of 283 Bhutanese took their own lives, with 95 suicide cases recorded in 2020 alone. Likewise a total of 623 cases of mental disorders were recorded in 2020.

The committee reported that during 2018-20, Samtse Dzongkhag recorded the highest number of suicides (39), followed by Thimphu (36) and Sarpang (31) Dzongkhags.

During 2015 – 2019, the highest number of mental illness recorded were anxiety (7,500), followed by mental disorders due to alcohol use (5,748), depression (3,377), psychosis (1,634) and mental disorders due to substance use (1,342).

The committee also emphasized the challenges of inadequate and weak policy and legislation overseeing the suicide and mental issues; limited budget and human resources; lack of communication and coordination amongst stakeholders; limited rehabilitation centers; lack of mental health literacy; and associated stigma and discrimination, that impede the prevention and treatment of suicide and mental health issues in Bhutan.

Trashigang MP Lhatu said that difficulty in earning a livelihood triggers mental health issues which sometimes lead to suicide. “These days everybody is on mobile phones and it’s rare to have a decent conversation and eat food with a family. Children watch everything on the phone. So it’s very important to create awareness in school.

According to the review, Samtse recorded the highest number of suicide cases for three consecutive years followed by Thimphu and Sarpang.

After the presentation, the House deliberated on the report and members provided suggestions and recommendations to further enhance and develop the report.

The committee will present the final report during the 28th Session of the National Council.

Meanwhile, with an increasing number of people seeking treatment for mental health disorders, the NC observed that there is a shortage of psychiatrists in the country.

The Social and Cultural Affairs Committee of the National Council raised this concern. As per the committee’s report, there are only four psychiatrists in the country.

To address the shortage, currently, the health ministry is training four clinical counsellors at the Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan (KGUMSB).

Lhaki Dolma, the Vice-chairperson of the Social and Cultural Affairs Committee said with barely a handful of professional psychiatrists in the country, Bhutan does not even meet the requirement of 1 psychiatrist for every 100,000 people.

“Until an adequate number of psychiatrists is available, general duty medical officers and health assistants should continue to be trained in diagnosing and managing common mental health disorders. There is a need for additional mental health training at all levels,” she said.

Other MPs said we have to look at increasing the number of the psychiatrist in the country. “We only have one psychiatrist in the national referral hospital. There aren’t any professional psychiatrists in the district hospitals,” they said.

According to the committee’s report, only 1% of the health ministry’s annual budget is allocated for mental health programs including suicide prevention. Over the last five years, the budget allocation has remained under Nu 3.5 M despite the increasing number of patients seeking treatment for mental health.

Bumthang MP Nima said that in other countries, there are various solutions and treatments for the different types of mental health issues. For instance, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is a mental disorder where a person loses interest in day-to-day activities and get hyperactive in other unusual circumstances.

Amid the pandemic, the National COVID-19 Mental Health Program Response Team received more than 1500 calls from between April 2020 and April 2021 of which 938 calls were related to mental disorders.

As per records maintained by the health ministry between 2015 and 2019, the most common form of mental health disorders is anxiety followed by mental disorders due to alcohol use and depression.

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