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What Pakistan Needs Now: Sanity

The past weekend saw the arrival of TEDx to Karachi. And it would be no understatement to say that the truly spectacular event took the local TED enthusiasts by storm (no pun intended to the tropical storm ‘Phet’, which despite its best efforts was unable to dampen the spirits of our organizers). The event was executed in style and gave its attendees a lot of food for thought on this one throbbing question: ‘What Pakistan Needs Now?’ The speakers touched upon tolerance, justice, leadership, women empowerment, interconnection, energy, innovation, hope and similar much needed qualities and resources that Pakistan needs now. The winning video short by Ali Kapadia summarized it pretty nicely: what we need the most is imagination and innovation. As I sat there, inspired (and that’s saying something about our remarkable speakers, because I’m not an easy person to inspire), an inescapable thought came to my mind, and it is something which we as a society tend to overlook most of the time: What Pakistan Needs Now is also a bit of ‘sanity’.

Mental health policies are a fundamental and necessary means for the promotion of mental health awareness in any given population. W.H.O. studies reveal that 40.5% of the countries have no mental health policy at all. Is Pakistan one of them? Well, almost. Pakistan’s mental health policy was first formulated as late as 1997. It aimed at addressing issues of advocacy, promotion, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and inter-sectional collaboration. It set out to produce trained care providers, to establish resource centers at teaching psychiatric hospitals and detoxification centers. It also provided for crisis intervention and counseling services, special facilities for mentally handicapped and up gradation of large mental hospitals. But the said policy is not comprehensive and even today a very meager percentage of the total health care expenditure is allocated towards mental health budget.

The mental troubles effecting Pakistan range from the increasing suicide rates due to severe depression caused by the various hardships faced by our poverty-stricken masses to personality and mood disorders like borderline personality and ‘bipolar disorder’ emergence in our young people. I personally think that a scientific explanation to the rising religious extremism among our youth may well be explained in parts by the phenomenon of ‘spiritual emergency’ combined with the witnessing of atrocities and injustices handled to Muslims all over the world. Spiritual Emergency is a form of identity crisis where an individual experiences drastic changes to their meaning system (i.e. their unique purposes, goals, values, attitude, beliefs, identity and focus, typically because of a spontaneous spiritual experience), which may result in unreasonable actions.

The stigmatization of mental illnesses in Pakistani society is another obstacle that must be overcome if we are to help out those that suffer. Common beliefs in Pakistani culture, where mental illnesses are attributed to supernatural phenomenon, left at the mercy of spiritual healers and local versions of shamans and witch doctors. Arguably, the stigmas have lifted to some extent and educated Pakistanis now hesitate less to approach mental health treatment, when and if needed. But access to common man is still very limited as psychiatric health care provisions are rare and usually expensive to afford.

The Diathesis-Stress Model which is used to explain the cause of many otherwise unexplained mental illness, implies in simplified terms, that a physical condition makes a person more than usually susceptible to certain diseases and depending upon the stresses of his or her life, the illness may or may not appear. Durand and Barlow highlight that specific stressful conditions are required to produce a disorder. Pakistan, right now has more than her fair share of ‘stressful conditions’: poverty, lack or resources, emotional and social conflicts, global isolation, terrorism and sectarian violence , child abuse and sexual harassment, are just a few to name. Dawn.com reported last month that Pakistani psychologists have issued conflict health warning. It stated that ‘With thousands of casualties in the conflict between the Taliban and the army, the psychological toll has largely gone unnoticed.’

Putting aside all medical jargon, I truly believe that Pakistan is perhaps one of the most unique societies of this world. Our problems, our inner conflicts, our exposure and our challenges put our young generation at a much greater risk of developing mental health problems. 65% of Pakistanis today are under the age of 29. So what I’m really trying to say is: what Pakistan needs now is also a sense of sanity, an awareness to mental health issues, a need to remove negative stigmas and an end to the silent suffering of our mentally ill; which may amount to only 10% of the total population today but if we don’t start working towards this cause soon, we may very well have on our hands a rapid increase in mental health illnesses in the coming future. We need to do more than just commemorate a ‘World Mental Health Day’ every year, while our policies regarding mental health lay dormant, because God knows, we cannot afford the luxury to lose our heads in the face of burdens and challenges of being a Pakistani.