In an interview with The Business Standard, Dr. Tasnim Jara sheds light on fighting stigma and raising awareness about mental health in the Bangladesh context with insights on accessible solutions for people from all walks of life
Dr Tasnim Jara emerged as a young Bangladeshi doctor during the Covid-19 pandemic, receiving prestigious ‘Vaccine List’ recognition from the UK government.
At that time, while studying in England, she began her journey as a public educator, sharing her views on the vaccine situation in Bangladesh.
Her words resonated and widespread fame followed.
She now wears many hats as a physician, educator, and entrepreneur. An alumnus of Dhaka Medical College with multiple positions in the field of psychiatry, Dr. Jara’s experience spans two continents, with a deep understanding of both the healthcare system of Bangladesh and the UK.
Currently, she works as a doctor at Cambridge University Hospital and is a senior clinical supervisor teaching undergraduate medical students at Cambridge University.
Previously, she completed a Masters in Evidence-Based Healthcare at the University of Oxford.
However, her connection to mental health is more than just professional as she has personally guided family members’ journeys in accessing mental health care in the country, thus offering a unique perspective that combines her professional insights with personal experience.
In an effort to bridge the gap in health awareness, she co-founded Shohay Health. With more than 9 million followers, her health education videos address a wide range of health issues, including mental health.
In an interview with The Business Standard, Dr. Tasnim Jara sheds light on fighting stigma and raising awareness about mental health in the Bangladesh context with insights on accessible solutions for people from all walks of life.
Can you share some of the key challenges individuals often face when accessing mental health services in Bangladesh?
Accessing mental health care in Bangladesh is like solving a multifaceted puzzle. The first piece of the puzzle is the stigma surrounding mental health. Imagine individuals struggling with internal struggles, only to face societal judgment when they seek help. This fear of social perception often prevents families and individuals from admitting their struggles.
Then we ran into logistical challenges. The courage to seek help is commendable, but the reality is that there is a lack of facilities and expertise, especially in more remote, rural areas. [of the country]. It’s like navigating a maze with very few exits.
The perception gap is another significant obstacle. Many individuals are unaware that what they are experiencing is a treatable mental health condition, which adds to the complexity.
What systemic barriers exist within the mental health care system that hinder access, and what steps can be taken to address these barriers?
There is certainly a combination of challenges and opportunities. Let’s talk about three areas that I believe need attention.
First, infrastructure. Although we have made some progress in urban areas, there is still a significant lack of dedicated mental health facilities in rural areas. This infrastructure shortfall is critical, and we cannot expect to meet the mental health needs of our population without addressing it.
The second challenge revolves around our workforce. Compared to our huge population, there is an alarming shortage of trained professionals such as psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. This disproportionate ratio hinders the scalability and reach of mental health services.
The third major challenge concerns our service structure. Currently, mental health care largely exists separately from primary health care. We need a system where mental health becomes an integral part of primary care, ensuring it is both more accessible and less stigmatized.
So what is the way forward?
We need to prioritize the training of specialists from psychologists and psychiatrists to enhance the mental health expertise of primary care physicians.
Raising awareness is equally important. Through national campaigns, we can not only dispel stigma but also educate the masses about the importance and nuance of mental health.
From a policy perspective, there is a lot of work to be done. The government, along with the NGO sector, must allocate more resources and pay more attention to mental health initiatives and infrastructure. Their combined efforts can bring about positive and lasting change.
Can technology and digital platforms be leveraged to improve access to mental health care?
There is no doubt that the future of mental health care will be tied to technology.
First, there is the rise of “telehealth”. With services such as “telepsychiatry” and online consultations, it not only aims to reach people in remote areas but also provide a safe and private space for people, for any reason. For whatever reason, you may be hesitant to walk into a regular clinic.
But beyond direct care, the digital realm is also a treasure trove of resources. Think about all the websites, apps, and online courses out there. They empower individuals by providing them with knowledge, tools for self-reliance, and strategies to cope with their challenges. They can also guide people on when to seek professional care.
However, it should be noted: not all online resources are trustworthy and evidence-based. It is important for users to choose wisely.
But it’s not just official interventions. We’ve seen the rise of support communities, especially on platforms like Facebook. Here, individuals bond over shared experiences, listen to each other, and offer a virtual shoulder.
At its core, technology is more than just a tool; it’s an ally. If harnessed properly, it can help us ensure that mental health is not a privilege but a right that is accessible to all.
What role do stigma and discrimination play in limiting access to mental health care, and how can we work collectively to reduce these barriers?
Stigma and discrimination pose a huge obstacle, acting as an invisible barrier, preventing people from getting the help they may need. For many people, the overwhelming anxiety of “what will people say?” This fear often leads to complete denial. Families may think, “No, it’s not my child. They’re just going through a phase.” This is not an error; it is the weight of social judgment that weighs heavily on them.
Then comes isolation. Some people are afraid of being treated differently, so they isolate themselves. This isolation often makes their mental struggles even more difficult. Even when they muster the courage to seek help, the fear of judgment still holds them back.
But there are many possible ways we can turn the situation around.
Public awareness campaigns can be very effective. We need to spread the word that mental health issues are just like any other health challenge, there is no shame in seeking help.
Teaching about mental health in schools can plant the seeds of compassion early on. Start young, build empathy, and watch those future generations change the story.
Hearing about people who have faced these challenges and come out stronger can also be inspiring. Stories like this show that recovery is real and possible.
Public figures have a strong voice. If they participate in the conversation, more people will listen.
We must remember that change does not happen overnight. But if we keep pushing, step by step, we will see a change in the way society views mental health.
Do you believe that specific initiatives or policies have successfully improved access to mental health care? If so, can you provide examples?
I do not have reliable data to explain this question.
[But to share an example] From Shohay Health, we have created content that highlights the need to take care of your mental health as well as take care of the health of your loved ones. These contents have been watched by millions of people.
What advice do you have for individuals who are struggling to find affordable and accessible mental health services?
Public hospital: Public hospitals, such as Dhaka Medical College, provide mental health services. They are very affordable.
Online counseling: There are a lot of good things happening online right now. Organizations like Shojon, Kaan Pete Roi, Moner Bondhu and Relaxy are providing various services. Plus, it’s so convenient that you don’t have to travel!
Join support groups: Facebook has many groups where people share their feelings and stories. It’s a place to feel less alone, but always be aware of the groups you join.
Self learning: There are sites like Shohay Health that teach you things about mental health. Knowing a little more can sometimes help in its own way.
Remember, it’s about finding what works for you and using all the options available.
How can individuals, organizations, and communities contribute to promoting access to mental health care, and what role can your audience play in these efforts?
For everyone reading this: Talking about mental health with friends, family or even colleagues can make waves. Start these conversations and if you feel up to it, sharing personal stories will help break down the stigma. The real power in sharing trusted resources, both online and offline. It could be a helpful website you came across or a low-cost service provided by an NGO. By directing people to trusted places, we make it easier for them to get the right help and information.
For companies and workplaces: The business has a strong foundation. They can protect their mental health by having a counselor nearby, organizing some workshops or even organizing fun activities to help people relax. Partnering with specialized mental health organizations can further extend their positive impact.
Whether you are an individual or part of an organization, every step, every shared resource can make a difference.
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