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Despite several efforts put in 

Despite losing close to 100 Bhutanese on average to suicide annually, the existing measures and policies have done little to address the social problem, according to the findings of the National Council’s Social and Cultural Affairs Committee.

The House deliberated on the committee’s interim review report on suicide and mental health issues in Bhutan yesterday.

The committee’s chairperson Ugyen Namgay said that the Covid-19 pandemic has further aggravated the number of mental health issues and increased the risk of suicides in the country.

He said that major risk factors triggering suicide cases in the country included mental disorders such as depression and neurological disorders including cancer and HIV infection.

A combination of other factors such as drug or alcohol dependence, social issues, poor emotional literacy, poor family and personal relationship, lack of social support, economic hardships, also triggered suicidal tendencies, he added.

He said that Bhutan was ranked 54th in the world in terms of the number of deaths by suicide in 2018. Between 2018 and 2020, a total of 283 Bhutanese committed suicide, with 95 suicide cases recorded in 2020 alone.

Members said that despite the measures put in place including a five-year action plan to prevent suicide incidences in the country, cases were on the rise annually.

Samtse recorded the highest number (39) of suicide cases consecutively for three years between 2018 and 2020, followed by Thimphu (39) and Sarpang (31).

Trashigang Member of Parliament (MP) Lhatu said that the fact that these dzongkhags were recording high incidences of suicide, there must be certain reasons behind the suicide being epidemic in these areas. “We need to find out reasons as to what is causing these incidents in these places.”

Tsirang MP, Dhan Kumar Sunwar, said that because most of the suicide cases were reported in the villages, it was critical to involve the local government in finding out the root cause of such behaviours among the villagers.

Some of the members suggested that if suicide incidences could be classified into a different age, gender, education level, occupation, and social background ground, it would help in narrowing down the cause of the suicidal tendencies.

 

Observations  

The committee pointed out that except for alcoholism associated with mental disorders and support to mentally disabled groups, the national health policy did not cover mental health issues as a whole.

It was also found that without policy reference to mental health or suicide prevention, there was insufficient support to the programmes and recognising the importance of mental health and risks of suicide.

“The various action plans developed for the prevention of suicide and addressing mental health issues are not binding, therefore, no one is held accountable,” stated the report.

Mongar MP, Sonam Pelzom, who is one of the committee members said that only one percent of the health ministry’s budget was allocated for mental health programmes including suicide prevention annually.

She said that over the last five years, the budget allocation has remained under Nu 3.5 million (M) despite the increasing number of patients seeking treatment for mental health disorders and a high number of suicide cases reported.

Limited human resource and rehabilitation centres also impeded the progress in addressing mental health issues and preventing suicides in the country according to the report.

Sonam Pelzom said that with a handful of professional psychiatrists in the country, the country did not even meet the requirement of one psychiatrist for every 100,000 persons.

Easily available and affordable alcohol was reported to be one of the main causes of mental health and suicide issues according to the report. It was found that there were only two rehabilitation centres in the country that were operated by Civil Society Organisations.

Members said that more rehabilitation centres were needed to be established to address the growing concern and also train additional clinical counsellors to help those with mental issues and suicidal tendencies.

The report also found that high level of social stigmatization and discrimination were associated with mentally disturbed individuals. Public awareness on suicide prevention and mental health were some of the key measures in addressing these issues, said Paro MP Ugyen Tshering.

He said that MPs should take up the role of spreading awareness among the public during their constituency visits. “Awareness campaigns through social media platforms like WeChat are found very effective. Besides health, we must now involve the religious and public figures to disseminate correct information on mental health issues and suicide prevention.”

In the meantime, according to the Bhutan global school-based student health survey 2016, 10-13 percent of students considered committing suicide and 10-12 percent of students attempted suicide in the past year.

The interim report stated that youth continue to be vulnerable to suicidal tendencies and mental health problems as social issues such as growing unemployment, school closure, online schooling pressure, and school dropouts triggered by the pandemic, including increasing unwanted pregnancies, addiction and substance abuse amplified the stress level among the youth.

According to the suicide prevention action plan (2015-2018), the key risk factors for suicide in Bhutan were due to mental problems (84 percent), stressful events (68 percent), addiction (59 percent), and domestic violence (46 percent).

As per the data maintained by the health ministry between 2015 to 2019, the highest number of cases 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). More than 8,800 cases of other mental disorders were documented during the same period.

By Younten Tshedup  

Edited by Tshering Palden

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