A tremendous change in prevalent social attitudes is required to de-stigmatise mental illnesses
Imagine waking up, consumed with inexplicable dread for the day about to unfold. Without any rhyme or reason; just a fear of the unknown, of something you do not see but that could be lurking in the dark, ready to catch you off guard. Imagine living in this state day in day out, every second of your life, with only this ‘irrational’ fear as a companion; scaring you, taunting you, completely paralysing you and your ability to make sense of anything. Now imagine being all alone in this situation with no one there to help you, or to pour your heart out to – because they might think you’re crazy.
This is mostly how we deal with mental illnesses in the Land of the Pure. Like everything else, we tend to brush away the initial symptoms of OCD, generalised anxiety, phobias, and depression in people around us, telling them that it’s “all in their head”, or inquiring about their spiritual status. And, of course, advice like: “maybe you should just get married, things will automatically get better.” This last one was a piece of actual advice offered by a psychologist to Saquib (name changed upon request), a friend suffering from a mild obsessive-compulsive thought disorder.
“Living with mental illness is terrible,” Saquib says. “It takes an immense amount of courage for one to come to terms with whatever is happening to them. The initial reaction most often is to deny everything and act as if nothing’s wrong.” However, things don’t get easy even after the patients discloses their situation to people around them. He says that people in Pakistan are quick to offer advice, without trying to get to the root of the problem. “They will offer you ‘helpful tips’, ask you to think positive, to go out for morning walks, etc, in other words, implying that the solution of your mental condition is in your hands. “Their totkas sound so convincing that you almost want to believe them. You want to believe anything that could keep you away from a professional.”
But it isn’t as easy as it initially seems. “Before I went to see a professional psychologist, my mental condition, increasingly worsening, was wreaking havoc on my life. Trying to manage my own brain and rationalising my symptoms myself wasn’t really going anywhere.” He finally found a psychiatrist last year who luckily came to the conclusion that Saquib had to be put on mild medication to tackle the problem.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t”. These lines from the recent Todd Phillips’ film Joker carry an uncomfortable amount of truth for those burdened by neurological disorders.
According to an estimate by the Pakistan Association of Mental Health (PAMH), more than 34 percent of the population in Pakistan is affected by mental illness of some sort. Most people, afflicted by disorders that do not noticeably affect their day to day functioning, avoid seeking professional help for the fear of being branded ‘crazy’ by society. Despite the country being one of the 194 signatories to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan, not much attention has been given to how we are dealing with the social stigma surrounding mental illnesses.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t”. These lines from the recent Todd Phillips’ film Joker carry an uncomfortable amount of truth for those burdened by neurological disorders. Society complicates mental illness by preferring it to stay hidden, often at the expense of the individual beset by it. The film – in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a deeply troubled individual who eventually turns to violence – currently dominates the universal debate about the portrayal of mental disorders in films or dramas.
Unfortunately, our local television is busy spreading misinformation about mental disorders or depicting these issues poorly, hence adding to the already unfounded and extremely harmful stereotypes around mental illnesses. A recent example is the show, Ishq Zahe Naseeb; instead of giving more depth to the protagonist’s character, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID, also known as multiple personality disorder) it conveniently focuses on his appearance and how he behaves “due to that disorder”. This callous treatment of mental disorders gives more power to the already existing notion in our society that sufferers “look or behave differently”, neglecting the fact that mental disorders do not generally work in that manner.
According to psychologists, a tremendous change in prevalent social attitudes is required to de-stigmatise mental illnesses. Teachers should be thoroughly trained to be able to diagnose behavioural problems at an early age. Companies should encourage their employees to disclose their mental problems with the complete confidence that they wouldn’t be ridiculed or discriminated against. But in a country like Pakistan where mental healthcare is not even allocated for in the yearly budget; it seems we have a long way to go to prioritise mental health.
In one of the episodes of Modern Love – the popular New York Times column turned TV series – Anne Hathaway portrays a woman combating the symptoms of a debilitating bipolar syndrome. It is a striking depiction of how people going through mental disorders try to lead a double life for the fear of being looked down upon — and how terribly incapacitating it eventually becomes for them. Perhaps the most important takeaway is the underlying message in the final scene where Lexi (Hathaway’s character) opens up about her mental condition, and in doing so, finally finds relief. When her colleague asks her how it feels telling her, she says that it is “like an elephant has taken one of its feet off my chest”, proving to the audience that seeking help, even in the most minuscule of ways, brings with it an incomparable rush of relief.
The writer is a staff member