McLean Hosts Pakistani Officials for Two-Day Mental Health Education Conference

December 1, 2023

Earlier this fall, McLean Hospital welcomed a delegation of government officials from Pakistan who visited the hospital’s Belmont campus to learn more about mental health and to begin identifying opportunities to improve mental health within urban, suburban, and rural communities in Pakistan.

The conference, hosted by McLean’s Education Outreach team, opened with livestreamed presentations focused on helping the McLean team better understand the cultural, political, socioeconomic, and public health landscape of Pakistan.

“While Pakistan is under-resourced when it comes to mental health providers and services, during the opening session, it was clear that despite several challenges, Pakistan is committed to improving mental health care and that the leaders who visited McLean are taking a thoughtful and forward-thinking approach to address the mental health needs of Pakistan’s residents,” said Scott J. O’Brien, director of Education Outreach for McLean.

Alaptagin (Al) Khan, MBBS, MBA, FRSPH, research associate in the Developmental Biopsychiatry Research Program at McLean, who is from Pakistan and partnered with O’Brien to host the conference, was quick to note that while the delegation from Pakistan came to Boston to learn from McLean’s experts on the delivery of scaled mental health care, education, and stigma reduction programs, the McLean team walked away from the meeting with great appreciation for the work already being done in Pakistan.

3 men sit and listen

“We always approach these discussions as an opportunity for everyone in the room to learn and to influence one another,” said O’Brien. “None of us have all of the answers, and it is only through mutual learning, respect, and cultural humility that we can begin to solve some of these bigger challenges.”

Among the barriers identified during the meeting is the overwhelming fear that having a mental illness or asking for help will lead to family shame and the individual being ostracized from the community.

“In our culture, some people would prefer to be labeled as being possessed than carry the shame of being mentally ill,” said Khan.

“Additionally, while in the West, we recognize the broad and far-reaching impact of physical, emotional, and environmental trauma, in Pakistan, the culture continues to limit trauma response to disasters.”

More than 240 million people live in Pakistan, with only 600 psychiatrists. “Our mental health system is taxed well beyond capacity,” explained Khan.

“We are relying on primary care physicians and very few psychiatrists to support an entire country. They are simply not equipped to serve the needs of this population.”

Both Khan and O’Brien, along with the officials from Pakistan, believe that leveraging technology will be a key to enhancing public and professional education about mental health.

Watch Now

Watch the lectures delivered on the opening day of the conference

“With 75% of the total population actively using smartphones, there is a lot of opportunity for us to collaborate to develop and deliver tools that will not only increase understanding about mental health but provide greater support to health care workers who work directly with patients and families,” said O’Brien. “We’re not going to solve everything, but there is a lot of good we can do together.”

According to Khan, Pakistan has one of the youngest populations of any country with nearly 40% of its residents aged 15 or younger.

“The youth of Pakistan pose a great opportunity for us to affect change—if we can provide screenings, online tools, and increase the overall understanding of mental health within our general population, as well as among health care providers, we can make tremendous strides in addressing mental health concerns before there is a crisis,” said Khan.

In closing the two-day conference, the group engaged in a robust roundtable discussion where next steps were plotted out, which will incorporate collaborations on the development of culturally sensitive education content, including online courses, stigma reduction campaigns, such as Deconstructing Stigma: Changing Attitudes about Mental Health, and continued conferences to encourage the exchange of ideas.

“These two days have been incredibly inspiring, and I know our whole team is energized and eager to continue working with our colleagues in Pakistan,” said O’Brien.

“With continued collaboration between our groups, I am confident that we can have a positive impact on thousands of people in Pakistan.”

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