Self-harm, ranking as the second leading unnatural cause of death in Pakistan from 2009 to 2019, as reported in the Global Burden of Health Report (2019), underscores the dire need for innovative tech-driven solutions. Mental health awareness is pivotal to our overall well-being, and neglecting it can lead to severe consequences for both individuals and society.
Pakistan faces a harsh reality, which amounts to the loss of approximately 380,916 lives to self-harm between 2009 and 2019, according to the GBD 2019 data. The nation grapples with significant mental health challenges exacerbated by sociocultural factors, economic destabilization, political unrest, high unemployment rates, and a staggering 36% depression rate, well above the global average of 20%. Among the psychological community, rising substance addiction and suicide rates are of grave concern. The fact that access to mental health resources is limited and stigma remains an unshakable barrier often pushes many to seek unconventional healers. Addressing these factors, especially among young adults, is vital for reshaping perceptions and promoting mental health literacy in Pakistan.
Misconceptions and stigma often lead people to suffer silently, avoiding necessary treatment. Promoting mental health awareness is critical—neglecting which can result in disability, substance abuse, unemployment, suicide, and significantly diminish one’s quality of life—to dispel these myths and ensure access to essential healthcare. Pakistan’s commitment to mental health is evident through legal changes like the 18th Amendment (2010), which encourages provinces to develop their mental health policies and the recent abolishment of punishment for attempted suicide in the country. However, there is still a long road ahead and new avenues to explore.
One such avenue is Telehealth – a booming trend, with the global digital mental health market valued at $23.45 billion in 2023, projected to reach $72.3 billion by 2032. Tech solutions encompass various tools, including mental health apps, AI therapy bots, VR therapy, gamification, and online assessments. Organizations like Fountain House and newer platforms such as Taskeen and Umang provide online and in-person mental health services in Pakistan. Established institutions like the Pakistan Institute of Living and Learning (PILL) and the Human Development Research Foundation (HDRF) conduct vital research on mental health in the country.
The COVID-19 era has propelled digital healthcare services into prominence, demonstrating their capacity to make mental health services more accessible, cost-effective, and flexible. Pakistan has witnessed a surge in tech-based mental health interventions, including helplines, mental health apps connecting users to professionals, and government-proposed free consultation services. Websites like SehatYab, TheParkLaneClinic, BetterHelp, and the government app Hamraaz offer a wide range of services, from online therapy to psychological assessments, enhancing the quality of life for individuals. Additionally, specific-purpose hotlines can be accessed on Open-Counseling’s Website.
Digital transformation extends to mental health, where social media influences well-being by fostering connection but also inducing stress and isolation. Social media holds a significant sway over mental health, offering both benefits and risks. It fosters connections, boosts self-esteem, and promotes a sense of belonging. Conversely, it can induce stress, encourage unhealthy comparisons, and exacerbate isolation. Online communities and forums provide crucial support, particularly for isolated youth grappling with mental health issues. They offer valuable information and privacy but can also harbor cyberbullying. Responsible and ethical social media use is paramount, using it as a tool rather than a substitute for professional services.
Ethical concerns in the field of mental health technology are crucial for building trust, especially in a country like Pakistan with an expanding online presence. Privacy, transparency, and freedom of expression issues pose challenges, with concerns about data breaches and unauthorized access. Stronger, future-oriented laws are necessary to address these issues.
However, none of these advancements would be possible without government support. In 2019, the government of Pakistan launched a 5-year program emphasizing technology to enhance mental health in schools. The focus is on training teachers in mental health promotion and early problem recognition. Online training courses, in collaboration with various institutions, were piloted in 2020, leading to improved teacher knowledge and skills, better identification of at-risk students, and training for school counselors. President Dr. Arif Alvi also emphasizes the importance of raising mental health awareness and family support.
But with all that said, recognizing the transformative potential of technology in addressing self-harm and promoting mental health awareness—from telehealth to ethical considerations and government support—these advancements offer a brighter mental health landscape, fostering a more resilient and informed society. One remains wondering: Can any lasting change be expected, or for that matter, will Pakistanis adapt to the changes in mental health and technology or be left behind?
About the Author:
Nouman Ahmad Noor, your friendly Clinical Psychologist with big dreams! Juggling the art of unraveling minds, aspiring to craft captivating novels, and fueling the next generation of knowledge as a future professor. Join me on this exciting journey of understanding minds and weaving tales!