Vietnam unequipped to handle its 9 million mentally ill patients

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Patients in front of a small television at one of the few mental institutions in Vietnam

Vietnam lacks the institutions and services to assist its more than nine million people living with mental disorders, officials said at a conference on November 27 in the central city of Da Nang.

Figures from the World Health Organization showed that 10 percent of Vietnam's population suffers from mental disorders, including more than 200,000 severe cases that pose risks to themselves and others.

Severe cases include those with schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, anxiety disorders, and dementia.

But the country's mental institutions, which are understaffed with insufficiently trained workers, are home to a mere 10,000 patients. An additional 200,000 patients receive financial aid, relieving some of the financial burden on their families, said Vietnam social affairs officials at the meeting attended by representatives from UNICEF and Atlantic Philanthropies.

The rest are wandering on the streets and have been known to unwittingly commit crimes such as assault, homicide and arson, the officials said.

They were discussing community-based assistance for those suffering fro mental illnesses, under a VND8.38 trillion (US$402 million) project that has been approved by the government which would receive VND3.34 trillion of funds from the state budget, VND5 trillion from the patients' families, and the rest from international aid.

The program is to include the construction of facilities to take care of the patients, as well as prevention and treatment policies for less serious disorders, staff training and a media campaign aimed at raising public awareness of issues pertaining to mental disorders.

Project 1215 aims to increase and expand Vietnam's institutions to the point where they would be able to handle 90 percent of the 250,000 severe cases expected to exist in the country by 2020. It also aims to provide consultation and psychological counseling to 90 percent of all citizens suffering from mental disorders.

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But officials said the project faces significant challenges.

Officials said it would be hard to raise enough money from the patients' families, as they are already being drained both emotionally and financially from having to care for their mentally ill relatives.

Chu Quang Cuong, head of the planning and finance department at the ministry, noted the traditional neglect of local agencies to sufferers of chronic mental problems, saying they have only been paying attention to orphans, disabled people, the isolated elderly and veterans.

Pham Thi Hai Chuyen, social affairs minister, said the biggest challenge will be getting the country's mental institutions up to speed with international standards.

Currently, they mostly supervise patients and do not provide therapy designed to help them recover or social and psychological supports aimed at reintegrating them into the broader community.

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