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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Experts: 1 in 5 Needs Counseling

One in every five Russians needs psychological assistance, but a lack of psychologists and the stigma of being labeled mentally disturbed has prevented many from seeking help, mental health professionals said.

"Years of drastic social and economic change and a jump in extremism in Russian society has seriously affected the mental health of the Russian people," Vasily Yastrebov of the Health Ministry's Scientific Center of Mental Health, said in a recent telephone interview.

He said his center's estimates show that 20 percent of the population needs occasional counseling but only a fraction are finding a sympathetic ear -- usually in medical institutions. Unlike in the West, affordable counseling is not found through psychologists and social workers in private practices but in medical centers, where only psychiatrists get paid decent wages.

There are far from enough mental health workers because low salaries discourage candidates from embarking on the extended training required to counsel patients, experts said. The training starts in medical school but doesn't end with the degree that would make them psychiatrists.

"Psychologists want to work in medical institutions, but to get access to patients they have to graduate from medical school, practice for several years and then to go through a two-year course in psychology," said Lyubov Vinogradova, the executive director of Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia.

"And after doing all this, they still don't qualify for the larger salaries that psychiatrists are entitled at state-run clinics. It is absurd," she said.

As a result, Russia has about only 2,000 psychologists compared to 20,000 in the United States, whose population is about double that of Russia's, said Valery Krasnov, head of the Psychiatric Scientific Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Medical Science.

Krasnov also said social services are more developed in the United States. "There, patients visit psychologists several times more often than in Russia because they usually receive financial and legal assistance along with psychological treatment. This is what makes demand so great," he said. "In Russia, psychiatry was traditionally separated from other medical and rehabilitation services."

In Soviet times, human rights activists often accused psychiatrists of being the Communist Party's obedient tool to punish dissent.

Vinogradova said the reluctance of Russians to seek psychological help is a legacy of that era, when a person labeled mentally disturbed could see his career ruined and end up a social outcast.

Yastrebov, who is also a mental health program coordinator in the European bureau of the World Health Organization, said that while there are no comparative studies showing Russia's ranking among other nations, statistics such as a jump in suicides provide a portrait of the country's deteriorating mental health. The suicide rate has more than doubled over the past few decades to become one of the top in the world, soaring from 12.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 1965 to 43 per 100,000 in the late 1990s, according to a WHO report earlier this year.

Another telling statistic is a surge in drug addiction. Tatyana Dmitriyeva, head of the Serbsky Institute of Social and Forensic Psychiatry, recently told Interfax that the number of drug addicts has skyrocketed by 1,100 percent over the past 10 years.

There are about 300,000 registered drug addicts, but experts believe the actual number is about 10 times larger.

Yastrebov said the Health Ministry has attempted to introduce a system of three- to four-year courses for psychologists but so far without success.