There seems to be a deafening silence in the conversation regarding mental health in Pakistan
Recently, after review petitions were filed by both Imdad Ali and Kanizan Bibi, a bench has been set up to review the petitions of mentally unstable prisoners on March 30. This bench is headed by Justice Manzoor Ahmad Malik.
Famous writer and filmmaker Jonathan Harnisch once said, “I have schizophrenia. I am not schizophrenia. I am not my mental illness. My mental illness is a part of me.” Mental illnesses, no matter how potent or dominating, do not, for the lack of a better word, define a person. This is a vital point that Pakistani society does not seems to have grasped even during the peak of the golden age of awareness. Correction: ‘the Golden Age of Awareness’ in the West.
Cliche as the concept of Western modernism in contrast to Eastern conservatism may be, there seems to be a deafening silence in the conversation regarding mental health in Pakistan- granted that a conversation has started.
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that causes delusions, hallucinations, thought disturbances, emotional withdrawal and overall disruption of basic mental functions in the patient. The condition affects 1-2 percent of the Pakistani population within the age group of 16-30, yet is barely acknowledged or known by a large majority of the population, and is often misdiagnosed as possession by jinns.
This misdiagnosis immediately results in the patient being beaten brutally until the “healer” is convinced that the jinn has been beaten out of them.
According to Pakistani law, under the jail manual Sections 444 and 445, “A mentally ill prisoner should be kept in a mental health facility instead of a prison.” This law has explicitly been violated in some cases, such as those of Imdad Ali; who killed a cleric in 2002.
Despite having been diagnosed with treatment-resistant schizophrenia before having committed the act, Ali was still placed on death row. In fact, in 2016, when Ali’s case was scheduled, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that Schizophrenia was not a mental disorder as it could be cured, despite Ali’s diagnosis explicitly stating that he had “treatment-resistant schizophrenia”.
Though proper medication can stabilise the disorder, it remains incurable. Ali’s execution was postponed when the United Nations stated that this decision would violate international law. However, he remains on death row, and is not receiving any medical or psychological treatment.
Recently, due to the review petitions filed by both Imdad Ali and Kanizan Bibi, a bench has been set up to review the petitions of mentally unstable prisoners on March 30. This bench is headed by Justice Manzoor Ahmad Malik.
We, a group of aspiring journalists, were presented with the opportunity to interview a psychiatrist from the Fountain House; a renowned rehabilitation centre, in Lahore. With an experience of 28 years in the field of schizophrenia, the doctor agreed to share his input and give us an insight into his experience of dealing with the patients.
He began by shooting down the stigma surrounding this illness and denying the popular belief that all schizophrenic patients are violent or possessed. He cited statistics indicating that most of the in-house patients are stable and working, but those shunned by society are frequently prone to self-harm.
He also voiced his concerns regarding the refusal of acceptance of the disorder by patients and their families, alike. This refusal results in further disruption of the patient’s mental stability.
The treatments for the condition require time, which is something the uneducated population, while facing this trying situation, are unwilling to allow.The doctor was well aware of the rights of schizophrenic patients and the laws regarding felons diagnosed with the illness, but refused to comment on cases like Imdad Ali’s due to legal constrictions.
The different forms of therapy, such as art and music therapy provided to the patients are admirable.
The mere fact that this institution exits is testament to the Pakistani community’s will to educate, aid and fight for the rights of those less fortunate than them. Here is hoping this faith is not lost during the on-coming trials of mentally unstable convicts on March 30.
The writers are students based in Lahore