Thailand’s ‘crisis’ in mental health care puts youth in spotlight

Written by By Rishi Batra, CNN Bangkok, Thailand CNN The crisis in Thailand’s mental health sector has had a profound impact on the lives of the country’s young people, with mental illness rising dramatically…

Thailand's 'crisis' in mental health care puts youth in spotlight

Written by By Rishi Batra, CNN Bangkok, Thailand CNN

The crisis in Thailand’s mental health sector has had a profound impact on the lives of the country’s young people, with mental illness rising dramatically among the younger generation.

“It’s been exponential,” regional director for Beyond the Headlines and MSF Michael Robichaud said in an interview with CNN during the Asia-Pacific Alzheimer’s conference in Bangkok this week.

“Some 23% of college students and 21% of young people have a mental illness over the course of their life,” Robichaud said.

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Over the last two decades, number of illnesses linked to mental disorders and violence have shot up among youth aged between 15 and 24, with lead, heavy metals and alcohol poisoning being among the most common.

Mental health care is particularly challenging in the country with, according to the World Health Organization, only around 3% of the country’s population with functional mental health disorders being treated at the community level.

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Amid public outcry about the lack of mental health services, the Thai government has stepped up efforts to remedy the situation. Last year, the Health Ministry promised to complete a series of reforms designed to improve the quality of mental health care, according to Pattaraporn Pongsusuwat, director of the Mental Health Department at the Ministry of Health.

The government has announced plans to train 8,000 counselors and launch more than 40 new helplines to receive mental health referrals.

In addition, Pattaraporn told CNN, they also plan to increase access to care to around 100,000 people, and reduce waiting times by providing service at 3,000 clinics across the country.

Last year the government allocated $35 million to set up a national mental health training network in the country’s 35 regions. The network will train up to 150,000 professionals to help address the crisis.

“We estimate that (the) training will take at least two years, but if we’re lucky, it could take six years to help reduce mental disorders by 25%,” Pattaraporn said.

“We also provide support to provinces to prepare centers for mental health service,” she added.

Reforms limited

Meanwhile, while the government seems committed to addressing the crisis, that doesn’t mean that the reforms can be assured of success.

“Mental health services require policy support from the federal and provincial governments,” said Robichaud.

“If we want to improve care, we will also need to improve financing. That can be a very politically sensitive issue in Thailand, where the hospitals are funded mostly by the government, including by higher taxes.”

The government has only allocated around $15 million in 2019 to implement mental health care reforms. According to Robichaud, this represents a 32% reduction from the amount allocated to mental health services in 2017.

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But the reduction also suggests that the government is prioritizing the issue of physical health, which is considered more of a priority when compared to a health issue such as mental health.

Furthermore, while the government aims to improve mental health care services, Thai law fails to place clear guidelines around mental health and where mental health experts should be trained.

“At the moment, we don’t have a state mental health authority that will take over from the Ministry of Health,” said Pattaraporn.

Finally, the solutions require much work, not just on the government’s end, but also among the public and the media, Robichaud says.

“I think government reform needs also more societal attention. We need to see solutions from the professionals, rather than stories from the activists about governments’ failure,” he said.

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