Many often call Bhutan “The Happy Kingdom.” The reality, though, is that despite its renowned holistic development philosophy, it is struggling with a severe mental health crisis. Suicide is the sixth leading cause of death at a rate of one almost every 90 hours. However, luckily five organizations are addressing mental health in Bhutan to help alleviate them.
About Mental Health in Bhutan
Among its population of almost 780,000, in 2020, 6,858 cases of mental and behavioral disorders were on record. Meanwhile, infrastructure and licensed professionals are scarce. Only 100 beds exist in the 63 community-based psychiatric units around the country and there have only ever been four psychiatrists working there to date. This translates to roughly one psychiatrist for every 200,000 people, which is similar to Indonesia and India (0.6 psychiatrists per 200,000 people) compared to the United States (33 per 200,000).
Like much of the world, mental health services largely do not receive enough funding. Only 1% of Bhutan’s total health expenditure goes toward mental health. Superstitious and traditional beliefs that mental illness are due to black magic and curses still result in people turning to alternative practices and religious healing.
Addressing the acute need for more mental health professionals, services and infrastructure, these five organizations are at the forefront. Here are the five organizations addressing mental health in Bhutan.
5 Organizations Addressing Mental Health in Bhutan
- The Bhutan Canada Foundation: In 2019, The Bhutan Canada Foundation brought together Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan (KGUMSB) and the Global Health Initiative (GHI) at the University of British Columbia to tackle mental health. This university organization partnership works to generate educational dialogue and skill building for mental health and held a three-day symposium in 2020 focused on reducing mental health stigma, suicide prevention and building resilience.
- Health Volunteers Overseas: Health Volunteers Overseas have been working in Bhutan since the early 1990s and in 2009 expanded its initiative by implementing a mental health project. The HVO Bhutan mental health project focuses on improving both access and quality of care by training and educating professionals. Volunteer psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists and clinical social workers at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital and the Royal Institute of Health Sciences train the students and staff involved in mental health care.
- RENEW: RENEW (Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women) is a nonprofit organization that Her Majesty, The Queen Mother Sangay Choden Wangchuck, founded in 2004. It focuses on empowering women and children and works with domestic abuse survivors and gender inequality. The organization also offers counseling services for abuse survivors dealing with mental health concerns. In September 2021, RENEW partnered with the Bhutan Board of Certified Counselors and the UNFPA to hold a six-day mental health facilitator training and another in October 2021. These events each trained more than 20 individuals.
- The UNFPA-PCE: In 2009, the United Nations Population Fund partnered with Paro College of Education to generate awareness, advocacy and dialogue on mental health as well as gender-based violence and developmental issues. It has published books and conducted workshops for students and psychological community outreach. In March 2020, multiple initiatives emerged to promote youth psychological and emotional resilience in response to COVID-19. The following year, a UNFPA-PCE partnership Center for Knowledge, Advocacy and Dialogue emerged to create a larger community base in the country.
- The Pema Center: The Pema Center is a new endeavor that the government funded to tackle mental health. It is a 60 bedded hospital currently undergoing construction that will dedicate itself to mental health and wellbeing. It consists of three main divisions – self-harm prevention, violence prevention and response, and substance use prevention and care. This organization began in response to mental health concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic when reports showed that depression cases had doubled. It aims to provide both prevention, intervention and aftercare along with helpline, follow-up, rehabilitation and awareness-building services. The center has been conducting mental health screenings at schools, colleges and workplaces to counter the adverse effects of late identification. Late identification of mental health diseases is largely due to stigmatization and a lack of screening services and results in more severe and undiagnosed cases.
The National Mental Health Program
In July 1997, the government launched its National Mental Health Program, to integrate mental health into general health care. Mental health personnel now receive training in public health care facilities, allowing patients to receive both mental and physical care within the same visit, reducing mental health stigma and building community awareness.
More recently, Her Majesty, The Queen Mother Sangay Choden Wangchuck, has vocalized the need to make mental health a national priority, pushing for more government initiatives to better Bhutan’s mental health services. Along with the country’s health ministry, these organizations light the path towards an increasingly healthy population.
– Serena Sahiba Singh