PESHAWAR: While many entrepreneurs spend their free time enjoying life, Nighat Akbar Shah prefers to use her time and resources to help others.
As an impact investor and humanitarian, adversities spur her on. She is determined to make a difference in the lives of as many people as possible.
Though she is now based in the United States, many of her initiatives remain focused on her homeland. She in particular focuses on the Chitrali youth.
Nighat Akbar Shah has subsidised education, donated high-tech equipment to schools and hospitals, set up a students’ hostel, distributed Covid-19 care packages to the residents in remote mountain areas, and has a business startup incubator pilot programme in the works.
Despite the success of these philanthropic initiatives, one problem she hadn’t addressed and weighed on her mind for many years was the growing number of suicides in parts of the mountainous regions of Chitral, Hunza, Gilgit and Ghizar.
When that tragedy touched her extended family, Nighat Akbar Shah felt a need to step forward and do what she could to spare others the same heartbreak.
Knowing that people with depression and anxiety are often compelled to suffer in silence, she wanted to work toward ending the stigma surrounding mental health. She felt bringing the subject to light in an honest and relatable manner was essential. Though she had never produced a film, she provided funds and hired a fledgling director, Shoaib Sultan to do the job. A challenging year of production yielded the 24-minute drama, Darya Kay Iss Paar (This bank of the river).
This film tells the story of a young woman who feels powerless to protest the constant demands and pressures imposed by those around her. Having no one she can confide in, her mental health deteriorates until she feels driven to take her own life. However, this isn’t the story of a defeated victim. It’s a story of resilience, understanding, and hope. It is also a call to action for those who are suffering from major and persistent depression, or know someone who is.
Nighat Akbar Shah explains that depression is a cumulative, complex problem. Left untreated, it can become life-threatening. Too often those who need help are ashamed to ask for it. Even those who seek help may have little or no access to resources.
In an effort to bring Darya Kay Iss Paar to audiences where it could speak for those denied a voice, and make mental health issues a topic of discussion, she showed it at film festivals. To her astonishment, it continues to garner international awards, including three of the four major categories at the New York City International Film Festival—best film, best director, and best lead actress.
Talking to this scribe, she said she was more concerned about the film’s human impact than its accolades. “I appreciate the many comments and conversations online,” she remarked.
“I hope people keep talking, but not about me, and not about the film itself. I hope to see a public conversation about mental health. It’s time to start talking about what we can do for people who are struggling,” she added.
Nighat Akbar Shah said she wanted more suicide awareness and suicide prevention education and assigning mental health professionals to every hospital and professional counsellors to every school.
“While some people may be more susceptible to depression than others, no one is immune. Suicide ravages all walks of life from those in poverty and illiteracy to the well-educated, upper class,” she maintained.
She was hopeful the film would encourage people to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health, address this problem head-on, and save lives.
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