Changing a Nation's Perspective on Mental Health

Tuesday, 2 August 2016 16:59 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

 

Despite a population of approximately 6.1 million people, Lao PDR has only two qualified psychiatrists, one of whom is Dr. Chantharavady Choulamany, BasicNeeds Lao PDR’s Programme Manager.

 

Since 2007 BasicNeeds has been working hard to address the need for better community based mental health care and support, and increase the number of in-country mental health care professionals.

 

Earlier this year, BasicNeeds facilitated the first ever counselling training for Buddhist monks in Pek district, Xiengkhouang province, in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). As with all BasicNeeds’ programmes and activities, this initiative aims to achieve positive change in the lives of people living with mental illness and/or epilepsy in Lao PDR.

 

Founded by Ashoka Fellow, Chris Underhill, BasicNeeds is creating a systemic change through a holistic approach to mental illness that uses meaningful livelihoods and community support, as well as medical treatment to help those with mental disorders.

 

Training Buddhist monks in counselling skills so that they can provide psychosocial support to victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO) is our latest venture to increase the country’s mental health workforce.

 

In a series of projects funded by local, regional and international donors in 16 districts of Borikhamxay Province, Vientiane Capital and Vientiane Province, 8,152 people including those living with mental illness, their carers and family members have so far benefitted from our programme.

 

To address the lack of mental health personnel, the BasicNeeds Lao PDR team has been working closely with the Provincial Health Department to train health staff in the knowledge and skills to deliver quality mental health care in district hospitals. 92 government doctors and nurses have now been trained and mentored by Dr. Choulamany in diagnosis, appropriate treatment and medications for mental illnesses and epilepsy.

 

Back in 2013, BasicNeeds was invited to draft the ‘National Strategy for Mental Health by 2020’ in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) country office at the invitation of the Ministry of Health. The National Strategy was consequently approved and to enable its implementation, Dr. Choulamany wrote a three year curriculum to train young graduate Lao doctors in mental health, and is also adapting international training manuals for the Laotian context.

 

Training Buddhist monks in counselling skills so that they can provide psychosocial support to victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO) is our latest venture to increase the country’s mental health workforce.

 

Why train Buddhist monks? Buddhism is central to Lao’s cultural identity, and Buddhist monks play a great role in serving and healing people in Lao society. Buddhism also emphasises the importance of individual counselling.

 

 

Training Buddhist monks in mental health and counselling will have a strong healing influence for people living with mental illness and a strong influence on wider community attitudes to mental illness thereby reducing the stigma associated with it.

 

The training included: basic knowledge of mental health, loss and grief, stress and stress coping mechanisms, basic counselling, and counsellor skills. Teaching methods used were lectures, case studies, role play, and group exercises. 20 monks actively participated in the training.

 

Ajarn Athipatay, President of Lao Buddhism Development said: “As monks, our duty is (i) to raise awareness, educate people on how to live harmoniously in their society; and (ii) to provide people with support in whatever way we can. As part of this new project, we have to conduct home visits for UXO victims and encourage them. We therefore have to get at least the basic knowledge and skills of counselling. I am happy to participate in this training...”

 

BasicNeeds has directly helped more than half a million people living with mental illness and epilepsy and their families in 12 countries since beginning work. 

 

From providing treatment opportunities and promoting livelihoods for participants at the grassroots level, to contributing towards drafting the national mental health strategy, and training health workers and monks to build the mental health workforce, BasicNeeds Lao PDR has come a long way. We are now a step closer to creating a country where a person with mental illness is not only able to access treatment but also able to successfully re-integrate into his/her family and community.

 

BasicNeeds has directly helped more than half a million people living with mental illness and epilepsy and their families in 12 countries since beginning work. However, the need is still great and there are many more lives to be transformed. Join us in our mission to create better lives by supporting our work and following us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. After all, there is no health without mental health.

 

This Ashoka piece was written by Natasha Abraham, Communications, BasicNeeds. Chris Underhill is an Ashoka Fellow, you can find out more about his work and other social entrepreneurs within the network by following Ashoka on Twitter and Facebook.

 

This article orginally appeared on Virgin on 18th July 2016.