The national referral hospital recorded 2,009 new mental health cases last year alone. This is the highest number of cases the hospital has dealt with in the past 22 years. This does not include cases reported in the dzongkhags. 

More people were detected with borderline personality disorder, repeated self-harm, increasing risk of suicides, and substance abuse among youth. 

While much of it could be attributed to the pandemic, the trend is worrying. 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.

A mental health expert says that childhood adverse events were another factor triggering more mental health-related problems in the country. There are more sexual abuse cases among children today, which is projecting in the form of mental illness as they grow up. 

Unlike other diseases, mental health remains hidden in Bhutan largely because of belief systems in our society. 

Bhutan formulated a mental health policy in 1997 as part of the country’s 8th Five Year Plan. 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 health care workers on mental health and psychiatric skills besides. Still more than two decades on, we don’t even have separate legislation or a proper treatment centre for mental health. 

Mental illness is preventable and those suffering from the illness can return to good health provided they receive timely intervention. We do not have the institutions and professionals needed to deal with such problems. 

We have only two psychiatrists, both stationed in Thimphu, and no clinical psychologists or occupational therapists which speaks clearly about the kind of focus we have given to human resources development. There are five psychiatrists undergoing training, of that two will take another four years to graduate. Significant developments have been happening of late. However,  as yet it is just a flicker at the end of the tunnel. 

The thing with mental illness is that it needs both medical and social support. Because 25 percent of mental health patients never recover, investment in care and treatment facilities and creating awareness in society is critically important. 

Creating partnerships, collaborations, and engaging the communities in the education process can be worthwhile strategies. At the same time, diagnosing and managing mental disorders should extend to all the health facilities in the country.