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August 21, 2020

The mental health challenge


August 21, 2020

The writer is a banker

If there is one thing we can take away from Covid-19 – the great battle of 2020 – it is how the world is capable of coming together to recognize one single threat.

It shows that all nations can, in their own individual capacity, align to fight for a single goal: in this case, containing the spread of the virus, and the pursuit of a vaccine. Granted, some states have fared better than others, some are better equipped, while some leaders have shown a clear lack of control of the situation, but I have yet to hear of a nation that is not at least cognizant of the threat. I have yet to see one state where the novel coronavirus is not making headlines or a state where the virus has not consumed all media outlets and dialogue and been the predominant subject of conversation.

In presenting these points, this article does not intend to take away from the gravity of the threat posed by Covid-19 or, indeed, from the damage it has caused. It merely aims to present a reflection against the backdrop of the dialogue, activity and quick policy initiatives inspired by the virus.

Despite the resolve that the world has shown and the attention towards Covid-19, we have failed as a global community to address and pay heed to another threat that has been well and truly amongst us for decades. The threat stemming from insufficient attention towards mental health is one that has yet to receive the attention that it requires. Much like Covid-19, a large part of the danger lies in its invisibility. The danger has been and is being further perpetuated by the lack of dialogue and awareness of the subject.

One need not look too far to obtain information. For the purpose of this article, I merely conducted a Google search to pull out the statistics from the World Health Organization website. Some of the data, in the interest of the current argument, has been presented herewith.

By WHO estimates (as published in October 2019) nearly 800,000 lives are lost to suicide every year. Every 40 seconds, one person dies from suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death in individuals aged 15-29. The data also shows that men are more likely to take their own lives. This can well be attributed to the kind of gender stereotyping which discourages men to seek help, but in the interest of not straying too far from the current point, I will not ponder too long on gender stereotyping and its effects and leave it for discussion at another time.

Further, the website also shows that there is a dire lack of professionals especially in low-income countries, such as our own, as reported by the WHO. As published on their website in October, 2019, rates of mental health workers in low-income countries are below two per 100,000 population.

If none of the foregoing facts strike our policymakers, economists and business professionals alike, perhaps the fact that the global economy loses about $1 trillion per year in productivity due to depression and anxiety will draw some attention to the subject.

The numbers presented are merely the reported figures, as compiled by the WHO. It can well be imagined that the actual number of individuals suffering from mental health issues is far greater. It follows that the number of lives lost to suicide are far greater than the reported numbers. These lives should no longer be treated as mere statistics.

In Pakistan, there is an even graver disregard for the subject. While there has, in recent years, been an increase in available information through various platforms and through the work put in by NGOs and activists, and the handful that care about and have educated themselves on the subject, a large part of Pakistani society has not been reached. The stigma around mental health is still pervasive. This is cause for concern because not only does it discourage people from getting the help they need; it also discourages further investigation of the subject. This then directly results in compelling those who are suffering to do so in silence.

Following from the conversations I have witnessed, it can be concluded that amongst the general public, there is utter disregard, blatant dismissal and a complete mockery of the problem. Moreover, and more dangerous is the derision of those who are suffering and their problems. It is therefore of vital importance that the lack of dialogue must be addressed so that the general narrative can begin to shift towards one that is conducive to bettering the lives of people and encouraging the notion that the topic of mental health is, in fact, of great importance.

What might strike one as surprising is that the conversations I have mentioned took place in a corporate environment where one would expect the nation’s educated workforce to show a better understanding of the subject. This not only highlights how much work there is yet to be done in terms of raising awareness, but also how deeply embedded in our society is the belief that those suffering from mental health are exceptions to the norm. It depicts the age-old stigma around mental health that marks sufferers as ‘crazy’ or ‘abnormal’ and associates mental health concerns and illnesses with a defect in the sufferer. In our society, this stigma is further perpetuated by our all-important concern with the image we portray in to the world: the toxic question of ‘what will people say?’

Our general narrative must change so we can start moving forward from the baseless fear and misunderstanding of the concept of mental health and start to acknowledge mental illness for what it is. Mental health issues are conditions that can mostly be treated with appropriate interventions and medical expertise where required. That these conversations still take place shows that mental health and its importance must be talked about even when talking about it is uncomfortable.

It is up to a handful of people to make sure that the message is heard so that we can begin to normalize seeking help. Greater education, across all platforms, must be prioritized to encourage and guide sufferers to reach out. Only through raising awareness and incorporating corrective policies can we ensure sensitization across all institutions.

In order to normalize mental health issues, move past the stigma and enhance understanding, mental health issues must be normalized at all levels of society. Greater awareness must be raised at the school level as well as the professional level, allowing for strategies for intervention and supporting those who need it.

At the school level, care must be taken to ensure that educators have at least a basic understanding of child psychology. Mental health must be prioritized at the policy level so that our depleted system can be better equipped with professionals to assist those in need. There is of course much work that needs to and can be done apart from the suggestions provided here.

While I stand by the central idea of this article regardless of the events of the current year, it is true that 2020 has been a year where I have found myself, all too often, shaking my head and thinking ‘everything that can go wrong, will go wrong’ – Murphy’s Law. It is now that mental health should be treated as a public health crisis. It is now that much more imperative that the importance of mental health become part of the general narrative. It is now that increased awareness of mental health should be given utmost importance.

This is true especially because as a global community we have already shown that we possess the resolve and fight and are able to take the necessary action in the face of adversity. Newspapers and journals the world over have printed articles in the hundreds every day containing a plethora of information regarding the coronavirus pandemic. The same concern ought to be shown for the public health crisis presented by mental health concerns.

It is pivotal in these times that those who can speak up, speak up; those who can put pen to paper, put pen to paper; those in charge of policy, act fast; those who can influence opinion and teach, teach. It is pivotal that we all do our part, lest any more lives that can be saved are lost.