Dr Tasnim Jara came to the limelight as a young Bangladeshi doctor during the Covid-19 pandemic, receiving the prestigious recognition of 'Vaccine Luminary' from the government of the UK.
At the time, while studying in the UK, she had embarked upon her journey as a mass educator, sharing her take on the vaccine situation in Bangladesh.
Her words struck a chord and widespread fame followed.
She now wears many hats – as a doctor, educator, and entrepreneur. An alumnus of Dhaka Medical College with multiple placements in psychiatry, Dr Jara's experience spans two continents, with a deep understanding of both the Bangladeshi and UK healthcare systems.
Currently, she works as a doctor at the Cambridge University Hospitals, and serves as a senior clinical supervisor teaching undergraduate medical students at the Cambridge University.
Prior to this, she completed an MSc in Evidence-Based Health Care from the University of Oxford with distinction.
Her connection with mental health, however, isn't just professional as she has personally navigated the journey of family members in accessing mental health care in the country – thus, offering a unique perspective which combines her professional insights with personal experiences.
In her attempt to bridge the gap in health awareness, she co-founded Shohay Health. With a following of over 9 million, her health education videos cover diverse issues in health, including mental health.
In an interview with The Business Standard, Dr Tasnim Jara shed light on combating stigma and raising awareness on mental health in the context of Bangladesh with in-depth insights on accessible solutions for people of all walks of life.
Can you share some of the critical challenges individuals often face when accessing mental health care 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 grappling with internal struggles, only to confront societal judgment when they seek help. This fear of societal perceptions often deters families and individuals from acknowledging their struggles.
Then, we encounter the logistical challenges. The courage to seek help is commendable, but the reality is that there's a significant shortage of facilities and specialists, particularly in the more remote, rural areas [of the country]. It's like navigating a maze with very few exits.
The gap in awareness is another significant hurdle. Many individuals are unaware that what they're experiencing is a treatable mental health condition, which adds another layer of complexity.
What systemic barriers exist in the mental health care system that hinder access, and what steps can be taken to address these barriers?
There's certainly a blend of challenges and opportunities. Let's talk about three areas I believe need a spotlight.
First up, infrastructure. While we have made some strides in urban areas, there's a noticeable lack of dedicated mental health facilities in our rural regions. This infrastructure shortfall is critical, and we cannot expect to cater to the mental health needs of our population without addressing it.
The second challenge revolves around our workforce. Relative to our vast population, there's an alarming scarcity of trained professionals such as psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. This disproportionate ratio hampers the scalability and reach of mental health services.
The third major challenge relates to the structure of our services. Right now, mental health care largely exists in isolation from primary health care. We need a system where mental health becomes an integral part of primary care, ensuring it's both accessible and less stigmatised.
So, what's the way forward?
We need to prioritise the training of professionals – from psychologists and psychiatrists – to enhancing the mental health expertise of our primary care physicians.
Promoting awareness is equally important. Through nationwide campaigns, we can not only dispel stigmas but also educate the masses about the importance and nuances of mental health.
From a policy perspective, there's much to be done. The government, alongside the NGO sector, must allocate more resources and attention towards mental health initiatives and infrastructure. Their combined efforts can bring about a lasting, positive change.
Can technology and digital platforms be leveraged to improve mental health care access?
Absolutely, there's no doubt that the future of mental health care is intertwined with technology.
Firstly, there's the rise of "telehealth". With services like "telepsychiatry" and online counselling, it's not just about reaching people in remote areas, but also about offering a safe and private space for those who, for whatever reason, might be hesitant to walk into a conventional clinic.
But beyond direct care, the digital realm is a treasure trove of resources. Think about all the websites, apps, and online courses out there. They empower individuals by giving them knowledge, tools for self-help, and strategies to cope with their challenges. They can also guide people on when to seek professional care.
However, a word of caution: not all online resources are reliable and evidence-based. It's crucial for users to choose wisely.
But it's not just about formal interventions. We've seen the rise of supportive communities, especially on platforms like Facebook. Here, individuals bond over shared experiences, listen to one another, and offer a virtual shoulder.
In essence, technology isn't just a tool; it's an ally. If harnessed right, it can help us ensure that mental well-being is not a privilege but a right 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, working as an invisible barrier, keeping people from getting the help they may need. For many, there's this overwhelming worry about "what will people say?" This fear often leads to outright denial. Families may think, "No, not my child. They're just going through a phase." This isn't about fault; it's the weight of societal judgement that bears down on them.
Then, there's the isolation. Some people, scared of being treated differently, isolate themselves. This isolation often makes their mental struggles even harder. Even when they gather the courage to seek help, the fear of being judged holds them back.
But there are actionable ways we can turn the tide.
Public awareness campaigns can be very effective. We need to spread the word that mental health issues are like any other health challenges – there's 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 narrative.
Hearing about people who've faced these challenges and come out stronger can be inspiring as well. Such stories show that recovery is real and possible.
Public figures have a powerful voice. If they join the conversation, more people will listen.
We have to remember that change doesn't happen overnight. But if we keep pushing, step by step, we'll see a shift in the way society perceives mental health.
Do you believe specific initiatives or policies have successfully improved mental health care access? If so, can you provide examples?
I don't have reliable data to do justice to this question.
[But to share an example] From Shohay Health, we have created content highlighting the need to take care of your mental health as well as looking after the wellbeing 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 care services?
Public hospitals: Public hospitals, like Dhaka Medical College, offer mental health services. They are very affordable.
Online counselling: There's a lot of good stuff happening online now. Organisations like Shojon, Kaan Pete Roi, Moner Bondhu, and Relaxy are offering different services. Plus, it's convenient – you don't need 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 mindful of which groups you join.
Learn on your own: There are sites like Shohay Health that teach you stuff about mental health. Knowing a bit more can sometimes help in its own way.
Remember, it's about finding what's right for you and using all the options out there.
How can individuals, organisations, and communities contribute to the promotion of mental health care access, 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. Starting these conversations and, if you feel up to it, sharing personal stories helps chip away at the stigma. There's real power in sharing reliable resources, both online and offline. It might be a helpful website you've come 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: Businesses have a powerful platform. They can champion mental well-being by having a counsellor around, hosting some workshops, or even organising fun activities to help everyone chill out. Teaming up with specialised mental health organisations can further extend their positive impact.
Whether you're an individual or part of an organisation, each step, each shared resource, can make a difference.