These are days when, for some Bhutanese parents, the aspiration for their children is that they do not become addicted to drugs or alcohol – that they keep their families free of the derogative image associated with addicts. This reflects, albeit inadequately, the concern emphasised in His Majesty The King’s Royal address on National Day, 2022, on the impact of drug and alcohol use, particularly among the youth.

At one level, such a low benchmark for youth contradicts the high vision for the country. It indicates that even as we aspire to become the “best among the best”, some of us are left behind in terms of the basics of life like mental well-being, an important indicator for the health of society as a whole. At another level, we are being pragmatic and prioritising the realities of life.

This comes at a time when problems of mental disorders are deteriorating everywhere, with people being disconnected from their homes, families, and countries. As it is, many lives are disrupted by decisions made by someone else and trends prevalent elsewhere.

It is, therefore, extremely significant that Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen has established the PEMA to coordinate mental health activities that were scattered, even neglected. PEMA’s plans for mental well-being is a huge mandate. If it succeeds at a national scale, it will fulfil His Majesty’s repeated advice to the nation to turn plans into action.

PEMA’s ongoing symposium, which will now be annual, addressed basic questions. How the substance affects the brain and why people become dependent; when an individual is branded and pressured, it is a problem of society as a whole; the role of families in a society which tends to leave all problems to officialdom; the effectiveness of peer support like “narcotics anonymous” and “alcoholics anonymous” which are proven therapies everywhere.

The discussions also highlighted important messages. It is ultimately about self-help but it is also important to understand that achievement is not yours alone. Addiction is preventable and treatable. Addicts need help, not punishment. Many youth have been imprisoned and that complicates problems rather than solving them.

While cost is a reality, depriving millions of people of medication and treatment, it is free in Bhutan. The key answer has been support from the highest strata of society. When Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen personally granted recognition to men and women who have recovered from addiction and those who are helping addicts with recovery, it was more than a touching and symbolic gesture.

It reminded us that there are two kinds of heroes – both celebrated by Bhutan in recent days. One makes you proud, as our athletes at the Special Olympics in Germany and the national basketball team did. The other makes you feel good. As we heard heart-wrenching stories of children victimised by adults, forced into addiction and suffering, and then fighting their way to sobriety, it was elating.