Mental healthcare deficit a big issue
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Mental healthcare deficit a big issue

The sharp rise in the number of people experiencing mental health problems should make policymakers nervous.

The National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) says some 10 million people in the country suffer from mental health issues, with nearly 11% of the population -- roughly one in 70 -- at risk of committing suicide.

The Department of Mental Health reported a similarly troubling trend. Over the past eight years, the number of psychiatric patients has more than doubled, rising from 1.3 million in 2015 to 2.9 million in 2023. The future outlook is as grim, with a significant portion of the population considered at risk of developing mental health problems.

Over the span of seven months, between Oct 1, 2023, and April 22, 2024, the department found the percentage of people with mental health problems, who experience high stress levels, stood at 15.48%, the risk of depression was 17.20%, and the risk of suicide was 10.63%.

All the figures have worsened compared to previous years. The hardship and restrictions brought along by the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation, with younger people seemingly bearing the brunt of the growing anxiety.

According to the department, suicide is a leading cause of death among adolescents. In 2019, about 800 adolescents and young people aged between 10 to 29 committed suicide and more than 10,000 children aged between 10 to 19 called to seek mental health support through the hotline. The NESDC concluded mental health is now a critical issue for Thais.

Depressingly, the measures in place to respond to the country's deteriorating state of mind have been disproportionate to the problem.

Figures from the department show that only about 39% of psychiatric patients had access to treatment or counselling, leaving the rest without proper care.

While the NESDC's report shows the alarming possibility that one in 70 people are at risk of suicide, the ratio of psychologists per population in Thailand stands at about 1.3 per 100,000 people. The paltry number of mental health professionals is inadequate to cope with the staggering demand, and significantly lower than the frequently cited minimum rate of one psychiatrist per 10,000 people.

Notably, the standard originated in Canada back in 1962. Since then, Canada and other developed countries have deemed the ratio inadequate. At present, the target ratio is between one psychiatrist per 6,500 to 8,000 people.

The Public Health Ministry has responded to the issue by promising in 2022 to collaborate with psychological colleges and councils to produce 400 psychiatrists within five years.

The authority also assured that mental services will be decentralised and available at the community-based level.

However, the measure to produce more psychiatrists will only boost the ratio to 1.7 per 100,000 population, which may not make much of a difference.

Besides, in a race against anxiety, the years that it takes to groom a new batch of mental health professionals may not compare to the rate at which the problem is growing.

Tackling depression at its roots does not look promising either, as the NESDC found that one of the main causes of anxiety among the population is increased economic and social pressures.

With the government admitting the economy is in "crisis", and economists suggesting that nothing short of an overhaul of the economic structure will get Thailand out of the middle-income trap, let alone stark inequalities, these pressures will not go away any time soon.

This means the government should make an investment to ramp up transitionary measures that will shore up the problem until the long-term solution comes into place.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) noted in its 2022 analysis of the mental health situation in Thailand, an increase in community-based mental health services seems to work well in reducing the number of inpatients.

The WHO also noted the strategic shift in providing mental health services form large hospitals to district ones and community health centres will further increase access to treatment and participation by families, lessening stigmatisation in the process.

The WHO's suggestion corresponds to a demand by civic groups, that essential drugs for mental treatment be available at district hospitals and covered under the 30-baht universal healthcare scheme.

Apart from that, the groups called on the ministry to upgrade medical services for people with mental issues -- expanding hotline capacity to cope with demands for professional counselling services, among others. Considering the depressing weight of the issue, the demands do resonate.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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