BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — While Papua New Guinea’s economy has been steadily recovering since the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch notes in the 2022 World Report that almost 40% of the population is living in poverty. This means that mental health services are severely lacking and that tackling mental health stigma in Papua New Guinea is crucial to ensure that these limited services are not overwhelmed.
Still recovering from the 2018 earthquake which affected an estimated 544,000 people, the recent election-based violence has put further strain on the country. An estimated 89,000 people have been displaced from their homes, undoubtedly taking a further toll on the emotional well-being of the population.
Consequences of Stigma
Our World in Data estimates that the most prominent mental health problems in Papua New Guinea are anxiety disorders and depressive disorders, but the lack of sufficient data and diagnosis means that the number of those suffering is likely much higher than estimated. This acute psychological strain is left widely unaddressed as a result of long-established cultural and social norms, in which there is a significant lack of awareness or information surrounding mental illness. Those affected are left suffering and unable to articulate how they are struggling, nor do they feel able to reach out for help. These individuals are far more likely to become isolated, subject to shame and fall into poverty, meaning that tackling mental health stigma in Papua New Guinea is essential.
Supporting Communities on the Ground
With only 0.14 psychiatrists per 100,000 population, and still little mention of any coping strategies regarding mental health in the National Health Plan for 2021 to 2030, initiatives are focused on supporting communities at a ground level. This involves starting more open conversations, creating coping mechanisms and enabling people to better deal with emotions and stressors, and supporting one another in doing so. These are all ways of tackling mental health stigma in Papua New Guinea, and better equipping communities to cope independently with mental and emotional challenges.
Establishing an Informal Mental Health System
This approach is a way of strengthening the “informal mental health system” among communities themselves, as the World Health Organization explains how if left unaddressed, high levels of stress within the community can increase the risk of an upsurge in more serious mental health problems requiring specialist treatment, which would leave many mental health systems in the region unable to cope with the demand.” In widening discourse and establishing mental health as something to be maintained rather than feared, and by working wholly from the ground, support initiatives have had an immediate impact on multiple communities affected psychologically by the violence.
The ICRC’s Support Groups
In 2019, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) formed over 30 support groups, which gathered more than 400 women in need of an emotional outlet by May 2023. Participants were encouraged to attend small group sessions in which a different topic was discussed weekly. These varied from the struggles among the community or concerns about family members to the more personal struggles of the individual such as periods of depression or flashbacks associated with PTSD. By encouraging these open discussions, communities have begun to dismantle the mental health stigma and free such topics from the shame often associated with them.
With the encouragement of the ICRC’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) delegate Christine Berger, local women began coming forward to offer their assistance having seen the positive impact of these discussions on members of the community. By 2021, multiple members — largely local mothers — had established themselves as “facilitators” with the role of leading weekly sessions with the assistance of village health assistants. These women soon became a great source of emotional support within the communities, and major contributors to tackling mental health stigma in Papua New Guinea.
Success Among Participants
The program has had an immensely positive impact on those involved, who go on to spread the techniques and tools that they have learned and open the dialogue among their communities. Berger tells of one touching experience with a participant who lost her son to the recent violence, who told her that she is “coping better with her son’s death and dealing with her emotions” after becoming involved in the program.
Ensuring Long-Term Impact
Although there remains a lack of official support for those struggling with their mental health which puts the most vulnerable at risk, initiatives such as these have a long-term positive impact. They offer sustainable solutions to ensure that individuals and their communities are better able to maintain a good standard of mental health and cope better in times of distress. This has ultimately empowered many communities and given them the tools to steadily chip at the damaging stigma surrounding mental health in Papua New Guinea.
– Maia Winter