“Stay at home!” they said.
“You will be safe!” they said. But no one said anything about staying sane.
Coronavirus has affected all aspects of our lives and the constant news about the pandemic can feel never-ending. Not only is it impacting our physical health but it is taking its toll on some people’s mental health too. This self-isolation can trigger our emotions, making us feel anxious or stressed. While these feelings are completely normal because of the unprecedented circumstances we are in, it’s important to curb its impact on us both emotionally and physically.
As Pakistan deployed its doctors, pharmacists, and law enforcement agencies for fighting the novel coronavirus, Dr Kinza Naeem’s ‘Umang’ also joined the frontline to help those observing social distancing to stay sane.
Umang is a mental health helpline, offering consultation over the phone 24/7 and trying to dismantle the stereotypes regarding mental health. “We started it as an experiment, and it worked. All they want is someone to talk to,” says the doctor as she recalls her reasons to go about with the initiative. In May 2019, Dr Kinza Naeem took it upon herself to become the light at the end of the tunnel. Umang was her joint initiative with Dr Naveed Iqbal, for which she had to take a break from her practice as an MBBS doctor. “Suppose you are fighting a physical illness that ends up making your life a constant struggle, would you prefer asking for help, or let it take a heavy toll on you? The answer to this seems very simple, yet more than 80 per cent of the Pakistanis are suffering from mental health conditions. This question reflects a very real dilemma,” elucidates Dr Kinza.
Sadly, our society does not consider mental health as a part of being healthy and so it is a big challenge for anyone to first accept that they might need therapy and then to get their family’s support in reaching out to professionals, especially women. “People in Pakistan are not aware and they do not reach out, hence most psychologists are short of jobs, specifically girls,” adds Dr Kinza.
Most psychologists working with Umang are MS in Clinical Psychology with around 10 years and a minimum of six months’ experience. Most of the team consists of females and everyone is a volunteer at Umang. Dr Kinza regards it as her colleagues’ effort and says it is the teamwork that led to the early acknowledgment of this platform. “I personally receive the calls that come at night, in case someone is in a crisis and I can get them help as soon as possible. I try to connect them to a psychologist at the earliest,” she explains. However, Dr Kinza has categorically made it clear that the helpline can provide support with suicidal thoughts and/or depression but they won’t handle situations when the patient is gone too far. “Since we don’t have the proper internal support, no one in Pakistan does, if you are about to commit suicide – like pull the trigger or jump off – we are not the people to dial-up,” she clarifies.
At the organisation, a client profile is formed with basic information that is taken by the call operator. These calls are mostly anonymous to make the callers feel at ease. The urgency of the case is speculated upon and then it is forwarded to a psychologist. The session with the psychologist can last from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the need of the patient.
When asked if the number of patients fluctuated due to the lockdown, Dr Kinza informs, “We usually have more females calling in, around 67 per cent with a range of issues. Now, during the lockdown, we have more males calling than before. They are not used to staying inside their houses; hence it is generating panic in them. The female calls were mostly from ages 16-22 and 30-34. The young ladies had issues like panic attacks, anger management, eating disorders, relationship crises, anxiety, and depression. The isolation had given them a lot of time to feed their mental problems and make worse of their situation. Whereas, the elder women were calling in with problems like midlife crises, marital issues, and anger management.
According to Dr Kinza, some patients, who were already struggling with matrimonial issues like abusive partners, the lockdown had aggravated their situation. “The abuse definitely got worse and we helped few of our patients approach legal help from ‘Dastak’. Apart from this, there were also complains of partners or male family members who had never been violent previously, who now have resorted to verbal and physical abuse,” she shares.
“Reaching out for therapy is the best way to find solutions, especially for women who are homemakers. This lockdown may not have been pleasant for their mental health, but they can still salvage their sanity. As for the men who don’t necessarily have a violent history, they should also consider therapy sessions if they are facing anxiety issues. Therapy can help you solve an issue that may seem bigger than us,” advises Dr Kinza.
“Every day we get to hear insensitive stuff people say in casual conversations about those they perceive as being ‘cuckoo’ or ‘mentally unstable’. The vision behind founding Umang is to break this very taboo and to smash this stigma. Our goal is to provide people with a safe space and professional help alongside through our super competent team of clinical psychologists. We do realise that old beliefs die hard but together we all can be a compassion antidote to this ugly stigma and uproot it for good,” she enthuses.
A progressive society needs a healthy generation physically and mentally. It is high time we start considering mental illnesses as a part of our optimal health. Professionals predict that post-COVID, the number of mental health issues will skyrocket. If we empathise now and normalise getting professional help, we will be doing our future a favour.