WATFORD, United Kingdom — The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the well-being of millions of people worldwide. The overall physical and mental health of citizens rapidly declined, especially in Bhutan, a small landlocked country in South Asia. According to The Lancet, “During the pandemic, a rise in depression and anxiety had been reported in Bhutan.”
Initial Stages of the Pandemic
Bhutan reported its first case of COVID-19 in March 2020, when a 76-year-old tourist visiting the country became ill with “severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus 2.” Over the span of the next 31 months, Bhutan reported 62,577 cases and 21 COVID-19-related deaths, according to The Lancet. Many of the patients were individuals with pre-existing conditions such as chronic kidney disease.
Bhutan was one of many countries that took very drastic measures to prevent the virus from spreading. This included movement restrictions from both its high-risk and low-risk zones, including its international border districts in Southern Bhutan. Anyone entering the country had to quarantine for a minimum of 21 days, a number on the higher end compared to the quarantine time of other countries. These were some of the factors that led to the decline of mental health in Bhutan.
Additionally, the government of Bhutan also created a contact tracing app software called Druk-trace, The Lancet reports. People had to scan the app before entering public places, making it easier for the government to track the spread and concentration of the virus.
Higher Security, Lower Mental Health
The strict restrictions imposed by the government of Bhutan disrupted the normal flow of everyday life for its citizens. According to a Ministry of Health study, mental health disorders related to alcohol consumption, depression, anxiety and drugs rose rapidly between 2020 and 2021.
In 2021, approximately 55 per 10,000 individuals in Bhutan reported having anxiety, up from 29 per 10,000 in 2020. Not only did the strict measure enforced by the government affect mental health in Bhutan, but “stigma and discrimination towards mental health disorders discouraged mentally distressed people from seeking care,” according to The Lancet.
To focus on improving mental health in Bhutan, the Bhutanese government started many initiatives. These include:
- Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu – This welfare scheme, set in place under the command of the king of Bhutan, provided income to the individuals who lost their source of income during the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative helped lessen the stress of money-related problems for over 37,000 people and their children and has helped increase the mental health of Bhutanese residents.
- National and Regional Task Force – In a combined effort, the prime minister, the health minister and the foreign minister of Bhutan started a task force that had both a regional and national outreach. With the WHO psychological first aid guide, 20,000 frontline workers provided psychological support to individuals affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Lancet.
- #OnMyMind – UNICEF, along with the Ministry of Education, launched the #OnMyMind campaign in October 2021. This was one of the first initiatives of its kind in Bhutan. A preliminary survey by UNICEF of 7,000 respondents showed that 4,000 were sad or depressed and over 3,000 mentioned that they would like to open up about their issues if they felt like they were being listened to. OnMyMind helped to increase awareness of mental health and provide a platform for children and their parents or guardians to talk about their mental health.
All these measures were put in place to increase mental health in Bhutan and to help the Bhutanese people through one of the most tumultuous times in history.
– Vahiste Sinor