Mental health and well-being has been fast becoming a major health issue in the country. There have been many commitments, meetings and consultations but sadly, however, there have not been actions to equal the severity of the burden.

The good news is that now there is a serious move to focus on this social malady. Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen graced the Salhang Tendrel ceremony for The Pema Centre – a hospital for mental health and wellbeing within the JDWNRH complex Wednesday. 

This 60-bedded hospital will have outpatient consultation and counselling, emergency services, treatment and procedure rooms, pharmacy, and inpatient wards. 

Unlike other diseases, mental health remains hidden in Bhutan largely because of belief systems in the society. Records available at the hospitals do not give us the real picture of the number of population living with mental illness. Many do not come or are discouraged to seek treatment at health facilities. Although Bhutan’s health system has come a long way over the years, there is much to be done, particularly in the areas concerning mental health.

Her Majesty stressed the need to address the gap between the number of people who need mental health care and those who receive it, as well the stigma associated with mental health conditions, which causes hesitation in reaching out for timely support. 

The coming of the Pema Centre means mental health care would be given the national priority that it deserves.

Bhutan formulated a mental health policy in 1997 as part of the country’s 8th Five Year Plan. The policy included development of community mental health services, development of a mental health component to primary care, human resources, involvement of users and families, advocacy and promotion, equity of access to mental health services across different groups, financing, quality improvement and a monitoring system, among others. More importantly, a plan developed after the policy contained timeframe and specific goals with respect to improving mental health services in the country, training of primary care health workers on mental health and psychiatric skills besides. Yet here we are, full two decades later, without even a separate legislation for mental health in the country save a small mention in the Penal Code that says that the interests of people with mental illness should be safeguarded and adequate treatment provided. That too, however, concerns people with mental illness in the criminal justice system.

Our biggest hurdle in fighting mental illness remains the widespread stigma which must be defeated if we are to successfully address the disease. So, what will the centre play in this respect?  It will, among others, extend services to families and friends to provide a better understanding of what their loved ones are going through, to recognise signs of those in distress, and guide them to the right help, support and path to recovery.

Going by the records available, there were close to 29,000 mental disorder cases were recorded during 2016-2020, which could have increased significantly due to the impact of Covid-19 and restrictions. Not forgetting the number of promising lives that we continue to lose to suicides (491 between 2016-2020), intervention in the form of a specific hospital for mental health and wellbeing is timely and welcome.

More important, though, the challenges of breaking the stigma against the disease and reach of services will have to be overcome.