To remove the stigma around mental health, it is important that we raise awareness in every sector: Dr Dipu Moni, Minister of Education
For the first time in Bangladesh, an international mental health conference under the theme of 'Mind the Gap: Contemporary Topics in Mental Health' was organized by Moner Bondhu, a mental health and well-being support organization, taking place virtually from September 9- 10, 2021. The two-day long conference hosted a number of sessions on mental health-related topics, attended by renowned academicians, researchers, goodwill ambassadors, mental health experts and many others from around the globe.
The conference aimed to highlight research, innovation, and best practices in the field of mental healthcare and enhance the conversation on the importance of mental health and wellbeing at the policy level. To celebrate 50 years of the birth of Bangladesh, the conference discussed Bangladesh's achievements and investments in mental health to date and drew on lessons from across the globe on contemporary and emerging topics in mental healthcare, including theory, practice and empirical evidence. It also explored how mental health has been impacted by COVID-19 worldwide.
A virtual inauguration ceremony was held during the first day of the conference. The ceremony featured several distinguished guests, including Dr Dipu Moni, MP, Minister of Education of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Earl R. Miller, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, Professor Dr Norman Sartorius, President, Association for the Improvement of Mental Health Programmes (AMH), Professor Dr Vikram Patel, Harvard Medical School, Mr Beniam Gebrezghi, Programme Specialist, UNDP Regional Hub in Bangkok, Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed, Associate Professor, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Tawhida Shiropa, Founder and CEO of Moner Bondhu and Ms Shikhty Sunny, Research and M&E Lead, Moner Bondhu who acted as the moderator of the inauguration ceremony
As Chief Guest, Dr Dipu Moni, Minister of Education of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, addressed the audience in her inauguration ceremony speech. "To remove the stigma around mental health, it is important that we raise awareness in every sector. Otherwise, it will not be possible to solve the problems related to mental health and wellbeing." She also said that there is a lot more that can be done in Bangladesh in regard to mental health, but unfortunately, the issue does not receive much attention. Usually, people do not talk about their mental health problems for the fear that they will be judged. Everyone treats it as a trivial matter, even family members of the affected individuals. But it is a very important issue that should not be neglected.
In his speech, US Ambassador Earl R. Miller stated that millions of people worldwide have mental health conditions. Now people all around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having a further impact on their mental health. Miller said that during the pandemic, American Centers located in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet have extensively supported virtual mental healthcare initiatives. He noted that the US Government has been supporting the mental healthcare sector in Bangladesh for a long time and they will continue to provide support in the coming years as well. Miller said, "With our shared vision and passion for promoting mental health, let us commit to developing and delivering effective mental healthcare solutions globally. Our joint efforts can deliver accessible and affordable mental health support to everyone."
As Founder and CEO of Moner Bondhu Ms Tawhida Shiropa said, ``Moner Bondhu is a dream-come-true, a collective effort to bring professional services for everyone, everywhere. We want to break the taboo for everyone regardless of age, religion, education, and social status. So they can live with their healthy mind, wellbeing and with dignity. In countries like Bangladesh, living with dignity matters a lot. And that's what we want to ensure throughout our journey since 2016. Our vision is to help anyone struggling with mental health challenges heal and live with dignity and good health.
We have been planning for the conference for months and the more we reach people and come closer to the inauguration, we perceive tremendous enthusiasm, support and well-wishes from all over the world- something that tells us that a global campaign for mental health has already been started. Such enthusiasm means a lot to us- working in such a challenging sector. Our conference carries ideas and innovation''
The conference was divided into seven sessions that reflected on diverse knowledge and insights from renowned speakers and panellists. It started with a session titled "Understanding Mental Health: Signs and Symptoms of Mental Health Conditions and Best Practice" that featured Dr. Dahrav Shah, India and Dr Erik Kucera, USA as speakers. During the session, Mr Asif Uddin Ahmed, Acting Director of EMK center presented Moner Bondhu's findings on signs and symptoms of youth during pandemics. This research was jointly done by Moner Bondhu and EMK Center.
The second session was on 'Integrating Mental Healthcare Intervention in the Workforce: Experiences from the RMG Sector and Workplaces', where the panellists included Keiko Inoue, Practice Leader for Human Development- Bangladesh and Bhutan, The World Bank Group, and Mr. Shahidullah Azim, Vice President, BGMEA and Mr Jamal Uddin, RMG Expert. Ms Inoue highlighted that it is important for workers to practice resilience in their work and spirit and for that, they need to develop their psycho-emotional skills. Mr Azim shared the remarkable mental health initiatives in the RMG sector and emphasized that both the social and mental wellbeing of workers is a priority for BGMEA, which is why such initiatives will be continued and scaled up in future as well.
The third session titled 'Telehealth - Digitalization of Mental Healthcare Services and 50 years of Bangladesh' discussed the trends and practices of mental healthcare in Bangladesh and the positive changes that digitalization has brought about in terms of service accessibility and inclusiveness. The panellists in this session were Dr Mahjabeen Haque, Professor, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, Dhaka University, Dr Bidhan Ranjan Roy Podder, Psychiatrist and Director of The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Dr. Mohammad Robed Amin, Line Director at the Non-Communicable Disease Control (NCDC) and Samiha Barkat, Public Health Expert and development specialist, Australia.
The fourth session was on 'Social Stigma, Mental Health, and Human Rights, which featured Dr Hurst Hunnam, Professor, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA, Mr Jos Poelmann, renowned psychologist, Netherlands, and Dr Rubana Huq, business person and mental health advocate, Bangladesh as speakers.
The second day of the conference began with a session on 'Mental Healthcare of Children, Youth, and Adolescents'. The speakers from this session included Sze Wai Cheung, Youth Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Governance and Peacebuilding Team, Bangkok Regional Hub, Thailand, Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed, Associate Professor, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Bangladesh, Mr. Craig Hodges, Director, Orygen: Revolution in Mind, Australia, Ms Ella Gow, Orygen Youth Research Council Member. They were joined by Moner Bondhu's psychosocial counsellor Kazi Rumana Huq, who presented case studies on youth in Bangladesh and highlighted the youth-focused initiatives that have been undertaken by Moner Bondhu and Mr Iresh Zaker, renowned actor and mental health advocate, who moderated the session.
The sixth session was on 'Gendered Aspects of Mental Health: Looking at Both Men's Mental Health and Women's Mental Health' that explored the gender dynamics of mental health. The speakers for this session were Michelle May, ECW at UNICEF staff lead on MHPSS, USA and Mr Asif Uddin Ahmed, Acting Director, EMK Center, Dr. M Tasdik Hasan, Global Mental Health Researcher, Ms Shararat Islam, Communication analyst, UN Women Bangladesh and the moderator was Ms Samiha Barkat.
Lastly, a closing ceremony with several distinguished guests such as Professor Dr Holly C. Wilcox, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Education, USA, Dr Mahfuzul Huq, National Professional Officer, WHO, Mr Iresh Zaker, Mr M. Khorshed Anowar, Deputy Managing Director and Head of Retail and SME Banking, Eastern Bank Limited (EBL), Bangladesh, Ms Vibha Venkatesh (Vietnam) Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) Trainer, Vietnam, Ms Abida Chowdhury, Assistant Digital Editor, The Daily Star and Ms Tawhida Shiropa, Founder and CEO of Moner Bondhu marked the end of this meaningful conference.
Ms Shiropa noted in her closing speech that the main outcome of this conference has been to come up with the national and international framework for the mental healthcare system, a global campaign calling out for collaborative action and cooperation and awareness building in the global platform. It was an event energized by the dedication, passion, and vision of mental health enthusiasts from across the world, making it an informative and inspiring experience for everyone who attended.
The conference was supported by Youth Co: Lab as Strategic Partner, Eastern Bank Limited and EMK Center as Event Sponsors and The Daily Star as Media Partner. As the conference organizer, Moner Bondhu believes that a collaborative platform like this conference is crucial to foster partnerships between stakeholders and can act as a launchpad for global campaigns on mental health. With a shared vision and concerted efforts, it will certainly be possible to deliver accessible and affordable mental healthcare solutions to everyone in need, in every corner of the world.