CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Healthcare policy focusing on mental illness is still developing in many areas around the world. While many nations have made strides toward accessible mental health care for patients, others still lack the proper resources to offer comprehensive mental health services. According to the World Health Organization, Asia, which stretches across four of the total six WHO regions, contains varied, nonstandardized systems meant to address mental health. Myanmar is one country affected by systemic mental health challenges.
Prevalence in Asia
Mental health care faces different challenges across Asia’s numerous countries and regions. Consistency and implementation within Asia vary across broad geographical, cultural and social borders. At least 450 million people in Asia report having mental or neurological disorders; however, underreporting could mean that the true figure is higher.
Many recognize that addressing mental health remains stigmatized in many regions, so some are calling for increased attention and support for mental health services. WHO’s Mental Health Gap Action Programme works to do this through training and mental illness identification, which remains a challenge in many Asian countries. By and large, mental health-related services across the continent remain underfunded and undersupported, lacking crucial “ground level [implementation].”
Mental Health Studies
Southeast Asia reports an especially high prevalence of common mental disorders. Despite the clear toll that mental illness takes on the population, the funding given to mental healthcare in many South Asian “countries is less than 1% of the total national health budget.” The state of mental health in Myanmar appears to reflect this trend. In the nation, mental health expenditures accounted for only “0.3% of all health expenditures.” This trend appears to have its consequences.
A BMC Public Health study found that 18% of the population of Myanmar between ages 18 and 49 displayed signs of mental distress related to mental illnesses. At the same time, other studies found that few evaluations of treatment options within Myanmar had been cataloged or published. Myanmar Frontier, a news outlet in Myanmar, recently discussed Myanmar’s lack of mental health treatment, calling it “Myanmar’s hidden epidemic” and advocating for increased awareness, action and results.
A Response on the Rise
Organizations and individuals, both from within and outside the South Asian region, have expressed interest in meeting Myanmar’s healthcare needs. Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company, partnered with the Myanmar Medical Association (MMA) in 2017 to create a program that helped educate community and primary care workers on common mental illnesses. The program further engaged them in training.
Improved screening practices for patients and other advancements are meant to help the partnership reduce “the treatment gap by 20%” within two years. Effectively, through widespread improvements in identification and referrals, Sanofi and the MMA hope to connect those in need of help with those who can help.
Counselling Corner, a Myanmar-based counseling center, opened in 2018 hoping to offer relief. Founder Aung Min Thein is hopeful that a combination of psychotherapy practices and an accepting atmosphere will help patients recover from their most pressing symptoms. In an effort to improve the broader mentality toward mental health care, the center and Thein hope to normalize therapy by shifting attitudes through outreach, such as webinars.
On top of this community-driven assistance, government spending related to mental health has increased in recent years. New clinics have opened, public policy has begun to respond to a desire for change and national commitments are slowly being made.
Action in Myanmar
Mental health in Myanmar is dependent on government acknowledgment. As of today, Myanmar has no clear contemporary policy on mental health, which limits the kind of treatment available to citizens. At the same time, the Myanmar Medical Association and the National Mental Health Society have identified this weakness and are working to address it.
Despite the major challenges Myanmar faces in providing comprehensive care, organizations and the state have worked to increase the public drive to address mental health. Similar to many other countries in Southeast Asia, Myanmar has struggled to establish clear systems for mental health needs. However, awareness has gradually been growing, and public and private efforts continue to develop. As government spending increases and community members become more involved, the future for those battling mental illnesses will improve.
– Grace Parker