Mental health was once considered taboo, with sufferers referred to as ‘lunatics’ and ‘madmen’ who could never be a productive member of society; and hence, promptly cast out, alienated and sent to ‘mental’ asylums, where they received animalistic treatment: beatings, confinement, and unnecessary electroconvulsive therapies.
While the asylum-era is long past, and most of the world is now regarding mental health on a similar level to other bodily illnesses, a thick cloud of ignorance still hangs over most of South Asia, including Pakistan.
Mental Health In Numbers:
Here is a numeric picture of mental health in Pakistan, according to various surveys conducted in previous years:
- 2007: Increase in suicide rates from a few hundred before 1990 to nearly 7000 in 2007.
- 2009: 4 million substance addiction cases in this year’s national survey.
- 2015: Only 2% of the mere 2.4% of the annual health expenditure is dedicated to mental health.
- 2016: Only 400 trained psychiatrists i.e. one doctor per half a million people, primarily due to comparatively lower compensations and less prestige.
- 2016: Of the total population, around 50 million people suffer from common mental disorders, 15-35 million of whom are adults and almost 20 million are children.
(These are only the reported statistics; the actual numbers are much higher).
The Media’s Role:
While making for prime entertainment content, the stereotypical portrayal of people with mental illnesses as either psychopathic killers or attention-seeking whiners only serves to strengthen the long-held beliefs against them, leading the actual sufferers to feel either ashamed of their condition and not seek treatment, or vastly misunderstood, for those brave enough to do so.
The Supernatural Dilemma:
Generations of misguided cultural propagation have led people to correlate mental illness with spiritual possession leading to seeking out the aid of faith healers or herbal medicine sellers, going only to a physician and finally, a psychiatrist when the condition has usually progressed to an advanced stage.
Those considered a risk to themselves or others or require treatment that can only be administered in a clinical setting are often ‘sectioned’ into a hospital, with the primary intent of providing them time to focus and recover, away from triggers and stress, and sending them home as soon as possible. Yet most people misunderstand them as potential threats unable to integrate into society; resulting in ostracization.
Some Common Behavioral Misconceptions:
1- Criminal Minds:
As opposed to popular belief, the risk of violent behavior increases only marginally with a mental illness, with mental health sufferers at a higher risk of violence, abuse, threats and victimization on a daily basis due to their suppressive abilities and lack of proper communication.
2- Playing Pretend:
Mental illness is not a choice, just like cancer or diabetes. Certain circumstances and life events force the sufferers’ brains to function slightly differently to help them cope with these changes, and nor are these illnesses an excuse for laziness, avoidance of daily-life problems, or an attention-seeking strategy.
3- Selfish and Rude:
They do care about others’ troubles, but having to constantly present a facade of ‘normality’, mostly out of embarrassment or consideration of others, has a physically and emotionally draining effect, leaving one exhausted and unable to socialize past a certain point, which is why they often repeatedly deny social invitations or tend to negatively overreact.
In fact, people with mental illnesses are more guilt-ridden and fearful of disappointing others, which often leads to presenting an outwardly ‘cold’ façade.
4- Can’t They Just Snap Out Of It?:
You can’t just tell someone to get over their moods. Your frustration is understandable, but the emotional changes brought on by various conditions are highly overpowering and exhausting to overcome, despite one’s best efforts; and depressive states can be triggered without reason, without any stimuli. Also, most people with substance abuse issues are victims of habit, not overindulgence, like nail-biting.
While those suffering from mood-fluctuation illnesses, like depression or bipolar disorder may experience prolonged episodes of depression and negativity, it is not a constant state of emotion. They can have good, productive days and bad, fruitless days, just like everyone else.
6- Why Don’t They Just Tell Us?
Mental illness is difficult to talk about, even with loved ones; and is made even harder due to social paradoxes regarding mental health and people’s initial reactions of pity, shock, and hesitant behavior, coupled with the sufferer’s own insecurities and self-doubt.
Overcoming mental stigma must be a national effort involving proper education in schools and reforms within the health and judiciary system as well as the media. Moreover, people must understand that those afflicted with mental illnesses require support, understanding, and patience.
Just because there is a lack of physical evidence like x-rays or blood tests, does not mean their troubles are any less real than a physical illness. Just as you wouldn’t mind the crankiness of someone going through chemotherapy, try taking into stride the impulsive and over-reactive behaviors of those with depression and other mental illnesses. Also, treat them as you would everyone else, no more no less.
No one should have to hide. If you or someone you know shows signs of mental and emotional turmoil, do not hesitate to contact a professional Psychologist.
About the Writer:
Yashfa Marrium is a freelance writer and health enthusiast. You can reach her at [email protected]