The roundtable on ‘Development of community-based mental healthcare in post-Covid Bangladesh’ was organised by ADD International Bangladesh, Dhaka University Nasirullah Psychotherapy Unit and Prothom Alo. The Innovation for Well-Being Foundation and the Disabled Child Foundation supported the event.

Highlighting a survey run under the project for mental healthcare assistance for children and youth, it was said that 74 per cent of the children and youth afflicted by mental problems did not receive any treatment. Most of the individuals affected by mental problem and their families had no idea where to go for mental health treatment in their localities. Around 55 per cent of the students said Covid had disrupted their studies, while 25 per cent said Covid had an impact on their recreation and entertainment.

The survey was carried out in October-November last year on 600 respondents of the 5 to 30-year-old age group in 4 wards of Dhaka City Corporation, 4 wards and a union parishad of Jashore City Corporation and four union parishads of Bagerhat district. And equal number of guardians were also questioned.

They keynote and survey report was presented by project director of the Dhaka University Nasirullah Psychotherapy Unit and professor of the clinical psychology department Kamal Chowdhury. He said there is one physician for every 30,000 mental patients in the country. Less than one per cent of the health budget is allocated to the mental health sector. If a higher number of mental healthcare workers would be created, there would be a balance between demand and service.

He said the disparity in society created by Covid had led to certain weaknesses among the people. This had a negative impact on mental health.

Additional secretary (development cell) of the health and family planning ministry’s health services department, Md Saidur Rahman, said the society and families had a negative attitude concerning mental problems. The families try to resolve the problems themselves rather than go to a doctor. Families must attach importance to the mental health safety of their children. The government has taken up a plan to increase workforce in the mental healthcare sector.

Speaking at the roundtable, line director (non-communicable disease control programme) of the health directorate, Professor Robed Amin said it is imperative to place importance on the prevention of mental problems. This must begin within the family. Until mental problems are included in primary healthcare, this will not be resolved. A model project for mental health will be taken up in two upazilas and a district hospital.

Prothom Alo associate editor Abdul Quayum presented the opening speech at the event.

The event was chaired by ADD International Bangladesh country director Shafiqul Islam. He said all the laws, materials and preparation required for working with mental health were present in the country. Mental health needed to be viewed in a broad perspective. Effective measures needed to be adopted to determine what measures were required in various situations to resolve the problems.

Associate professor of the National Institute of Mental Health, Mekhla Sarkar, said the disparity and discrimination in mental health had become more acute in Covid times. She said that the children and adolescents would not have the ability to adjust to the Covid-induced changed circumstances. That is why the families and the society must assist these children, with no bias, to grow up properly. Their mental problems must be identified and they must be taken to the physician for treatment.

Bangladesh’s national consultant (mental health) of the World Health Organisation, Hasina Mumtaz, said investment in mental health must be stepped up and public awareness must be increased in this regard.

Director of the BRAC Health Nutrition and Population Programme, Morsheda Chowdhury, said that government and non-government initiative can be taken to appoint area-wise para-counselors on an interim basis in order to meet the shortfall in skilled physicians and psychiatric specialists in proportion to mental patients. The para-counselors will inform the concerned persons where and to whom to go for mental treatment.

Chairman of Dhaka University’s department of clinical psychology, Zobeda Khatun, said parents were being unable to identify what was required for the mental development of children. Educational institutions had reopened, and studies were thrust upon the children before they could realise. Teachers needed to be sensitive so that the students can adjust with the circumstances.

Executive director of Innovation for Wellbeing Foundation, Monira Rahman, said various model projects were required to encourage people to get professional help for mental health safety.

Executive director of the Disabled Child Foundation, Nasrin Jahan, said each and every child in a family must be equally evaluated so that they can growth with mental wellbeing.

Participant from Jashore, Nasrin, member of Mukti Protibandhi Kalyan Sangstha from Dhaka, Rafiq Mridha, and member of the Disabled Child Foundation, Shireen Akhter, described their experiences in working with mental health issues.

The event was moderated by Prothom Alo assistant editor Firoz Choudhury.