Legal reforms necessary to improve mental healthcare system

A recent report published in this paper reveals that the already pathetic state of the legal framework governing the mental health sector in our country further worsened during the pandemic. According to the National Mental Health Survey in Bangladesh (2018-19), some 17 percent of Bangladeshi adults suffer from mental health problems, although the actual numbers are likely to be much higher. It is worrying that Pabna Mental Hospital, where a majority of patients from across the country seek treatment, remains understaffed with only 500 beds, and out of the 25 allotted posts for doctors, 13 are still vacant. Repeated requests from the hospital management to the higher authorities for action seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

The need for better quality mental healthcare and psychosocial support is more urgent now than ever, especially because of the pandemic’s impact on many homebound people and children. The support that our government provides in this regard falls short, even though the recently enacted Mental Health Act, 2018 entrusts the government with the responsibility of regulating, developing, controlling, expanding and co-coordinating the activities associated with mental health services. However, the Act falls short of addressing the economic burden of the mental health care system, which often deters people—especially those from lower-income backgrounds—from seeking the support they need. It does not lay out what happens if the government cannot or does not ensure implementation of the provisions under the law, or how to hold those who violate the human rights of persons with mental health issues accountable.

It is upsetting how grossly neglected mental health is in Bangladesh. Given the poor policy attention mental health receives, it is very important to revisit the law. It must be made more inclusive in order to address the dire state of the mental health sector. Furthermore, we must prioritise the implementation of existing provisions in the law and allocate sufficient funds from the national budget to boost the capacity of our flailing mental healthcare system. It is our ethical and moral responsibility to extend care towards those who cannot care for themselves.

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