Mental health professionals providing online therapy sessions say they have seen a rise in the cases of domestic abuse in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown in Pakistan. However, these are not the only cases related to the mental conditions that have recently been reported to them in large numbers.
“The bigger challenge is that our clients are leaving their online sessions unfinished,” says Amna Asif, the CEO of ReliveNow, an online counselling and therapy platform, as she talks to The News.
“It is because of the fear that somebody will see them talking to us, since all family members are home,” she adds. With the pandemic hitting the economy and sending people into quarantine, a rise in domestic violence has been reported in many countries, she says. “Domestic abuse has already been a haunting problem in Pakistan; more cases are surfacing in this time of anxiety and depression for all.”
Asif says that for the people with mental conditions, they have started a free service at the online platform that she founded two years ago as a start-up venture.
“We have 20 mental health professionals on our team who are providing 16-minute online sessions without any fee in this time of crisis,” she says. “Since the lockdown began, we have been having more cases related to domestic violence in the country.” One such case is being handled by Sarah Shabbir, who has been practising clinical psychology for the past five years. She now works privately.
“A woman, who is already diagnosed with depression, was slapped twice by her husband last week. I am providing her online sessions,” she says. “But there are issues of privacy, as her husband is home all day.”
Shabbir says the husband justified the act of violence by citing his financial depression due to the lockdown.
For Zohra Yousuf, the former chief of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, financial depression is not the sole reason of the rise in domestic abuse cases. “Not only women but also children are vulnerable in this situation. Cases of parents beating children are not even reported in normal days, let alone amid this crisis.”
On March 30, the Ministry of Human Rights tweeted: “Lockdowns and quarantine measures often leave women and children vulnerable to domestic abuse and violence — which is known to rise during emergencies. Our helpline is here to help you. Dial 1099 or call/text us on WhatsApp: 03339085709.”
However, senior lawyer Shuja Abbas, who has worked as a court arbitrator in family dispute cases and is a teacher, says domestic abuse victims know the complications for them and their families if they reach out to the government.
“Domestic abuse victims rather go to the respectable people in their areas for arbitration. Since the lockdown does not allow face-to-face meetings, we need to have digital platforms for family arbitration,” he says.
Abbas demands that the government set up committees at town level so they could play their traditional role in mitigating the situation via online platforms.
Sarah Shabbir, who has worked as a rehab practitioner, says a couple of her clients recently showed suicidal tendencies in online sessions. “A girl is a rape victim. She has been struggling to come out of the trauma. As soon as she got to know about the lockdown, her mental condition deteriorated.”
Shabbir says the girl was preparing for her upcoming exams, which helped her stay mentally occupied. “When her exams were postponed, she was in a state of trauma again and showed suicidal tendencies.”
Zohra Yousuf says it is a testing time for everybody in society. “The government, the NGOs and the people should consolidate their efforts in the fight against the challenges the pandemic is creating at so many levels.”
One such challenge is that “even people who were regularly taking online therapy sessions are afraid of talking to us,” says Amna Asif. “We need to aggressively carry out a campaign, making people realise that it’s okay to talk to a psychiatrist for their mental well-being.”
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