Pakistan clamouring for the Ellen touch!

Published: January 27, 2017
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The writer is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul and tweets @naveed360

The writer is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul and tweets @naveed360

When an earthquake strikes, a flood rampages or bomb goes off in a market, material devastation is not just what trails. For the outsiders, the cities return to normalcy after reconstruction, farmhouses prosper as water recedes, and hustle and bustle returns to bazaars within days. The psychological scars, however, remain on the humans.

Certain victims re-experience the traumas while awake others face nightmares. Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, avoidance and numbing symptoms are other likely effects of traumas suffered. Victims don’t want to talk about their suffering or refuse to go anywhere that reminds them of the dreadful past. Moreover, they go through signs of physical hyper arousal include insomnia and difficulty in concentrating.

Off late, mental health experts have broadened their definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which not only includes trauma confronted during war but also acute distress from suicide bombing, target killing, street crimes, natural disasters, rape and bullying on campuses. The PTSD results from an out-of-the-ordinary life experience in which one is at risk and during which a person feels helpless and hopeless. While higher occurrence of PTSD turns many victims to alcohol or other drugs, the others turn violent or seek withdrawal in silence. Any sufferer is not just alone; he affects the entire family and closer friends.

Do the symptoms exist in behaviour of Pakistanis, collective or individual? The answer is an unambiguous yes. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan till to-date, there have been back-to-back extraordinary chilling incidents this nation has gone through. The prevalence of schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder here, for instance, would outscore by a wide margin the global average of around 10 per cent of the population of any developing country. Then, how to tackle the challenge when sizeable portion of a nation caries such symptoms? It’s not just Pakistanis, but Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians, too, face a similar dilemma.

Since 1980s, terrorism, political victimisation and ethnic violence have been taking the toll on Pakistanis lives, mental health and physical infrastructure. The moments of joy have been there but few and far between. Marathon spree to plunder national wealth caused knee-jerk reaction of imposition of higher taxes. Since 2001, over 100,000 lives were lost at the hands of terrorists as well as fighting against terrorism, leaving behind countless cases of the PTSD in almost every region of Pakistan.

Live media coverage of terrible incidents fanned depression to higher scales. For the most part, scenes of carnage were video-graphed and telecast live. The running commentary was descriptive instead of informative. From earthquakes to plane crashes, and vigilante lynching of youth to suicide bombings, the reporting revived insecurity and fear of violent death. Content with unending supply of ‘breaking news’, media executives exceeded in real-time coverage of the happenings while ignoring to follow-ups on them the next day or week. The left-leaning civil society supplied liberal analysts who ranted against General Zia’s mindless support to Afghan militants against the Soviet Union while seeking all-out military answers. The scare-mongering directly fed into Musharraf’s strategy of using ‘war on terror’ to seize absolute power. Assassination of Benazir Bhutto inflicted an unparalleled agony on the nation. The ensuing era was no different. While wishy-washy counter-terror policies continued, adolescent and noisy media delivered massive doses of depression and anxiety through ‘breaking news’ as well as prime time talk-shows.

Now that violent streak has slid down significantly, the PSTD suffering still haunts the people at varying stages. Apathy towards mental health is so alarming that the last study on PTSD dates back to 2013. According to an estimate, Pakistan has more dentists than psychologists and psychiatrists combined. The rehabilitation is far from possible when there is one certified expert for 100,000 PTSD patients. The country’s four public sector mental hospitals have combined capacity of 3,000 beds. The private sector does not fair any better too.

Given the mammoth challenge, the recovery process necessitates ingenious solutions. The most tempting possibility is to summon help from the national press and electronic media, which covered honour crimes, terrorist attacks and natural calamities non-stop. The media, which never confronted the authorities for not addressing the issue of mental health, ought to come forward to repair psychological scars of the nation. Even TV dramas and movies aired on cable networks and displayed in theatres must pass the criteria of minimal violence. The more the people see targeted killings and suicide attacks, their trauma is replayed. Besides implementing a code of conduct for coverage of violence and disaster, must there be an editorial obligation to rehabilitate its victims. A typical media executive may find it absurd to focus dramatic story in the age of ratings and click-based mass media. Spectacular images coupled with hysterical voice-over fetch bigger TV viewers while glamorous actors and models or sensational statements bring extra clicks. Where can such messianic mission of curing the sick fit in, they will argue!

Ellen DeGeneres accepted the dare in brutally competitive American media scene in 2003. A standup comedian of the 1980s perfected the art of blending mannerly humour with Hollywood glamour. With be-kind-to-one-another message, she has been bringing hope to the destitute and the depressed. This happy princess has surprised thousands with fulfillment of their lifelong dreams. While adopting crumbling schools, Ellen has been babysitting an entire generation of talented American kids who are already on course to stardom. The 59-year-old’s fans may be alone but are never lonely. Albeit her share of challenges, Ellen created her niche for a daytime show that soon became absurdly popular with the advertisers as well as affiliate networks across North America and beyond. Learning from the trauma faced in her childhood and career alike, the college dropout dedicates portion of the show’s time featuring stories of everyday people. Unlike Pakistani comedy show hosts, she methodically avoids rants yet delivers her message of love, hope and kindness in casual and fun atmosphere. The famous and the regular, the white and the coloured, everyone can relate to her personally. Not only she became a millionaire herself but also expended advertisers to provide for anything from holiday tours to family cars and home appliances amongst scores of struggling self-respecting people.

Pakistan needs a media outfitted with Ellen’s touch to transform its pain and suffering into shared laughter and mutual kindness. Newspapers continue to carry true stories of struggling people who need a hand but won’t ask for one out of dignity. The new genre of such shows can inspire the nation with their work and by helping them be better off.

The dilemma here is not just who owns the media houses but lack of courageous leaders able to strike the near-perfect editorial balance between the need and the demand. What’s popular is not always what’s the most important. The entire media industry seems devoid of an impeccable plan to keep news TV networks afloat. Perpetual supply of trauma through live coverage of violence or despondent shouting matches at primetime epitomises sadistic approach to journalism and business both.

Greed won’t salvage the media empire but kindness sure can. If cynical, ask Ellen!

Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th, 2017.

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