News of the suicide of celebrity chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain and iconic fashion designer Kate Spade earlier this month shocked everyone. This brought an abrupt end to the lives of glittering careers for reasons that will never be known. Clearly, none of us are immune to anxiety, depression, stress and emotional or physical abuse, even those that seem to be the happiest and most successful among us. This raises a couple of fundamental questions; what is mental health and why don’t we talk about it more often? Why does negativity seem to be all around us? How can we start removing or minimising mental health stigma from our culture?
Is the Pakistani government and the society in general ready to address these issues?
Let us survey the issue first; everyone around us seems to be busy chasing something: goals, money, fame, success, the next article post, the next vacation, likes and shares. In a world so interconnected, human relationships seem increasingly disconnected. We are addicted to our Facebook and Insta feeds because billions of people post only their best moments, which we’re getting high off of. Our brains are basically always looking for the next happy moment, completely ignoring personal feelings and forgetting to practise mindfulness.
By pursuing this we forget that some of us may be doing this because of internal or mental health. But the majority won’t acknowledge it. Our culture probably plays a major role in stigmatising mental health. Society has forced upon us, especially men, a ‘mask of masculinity’ of sorts, where no one feels comfortable or safe to talk about personal feelings and emotions when they’re feeling low. Opinions seem to have climbed the authority ladder over facts and we always seem to be right.
This mindset is cancerous. This stigma is as bad as talking to our children about sexual education or talking to our daughters about periods when they hit puberty. We must start paying close attention to these details to improve the overall quality of relationships around us. Our priorities must lie in fostering healthy children, nurturing healthy minds, designing healthy places and communities as well as forming healthy habits.
Mental health can be linked to depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide, drug abuse as well as physical health problems. As suicide rates escalate and mental health becomes a growing concern, how do we raise a mentally-healthy generation which can maximise its potential, cope with stress in life and at work, as well as not be afraid to talk about ‘emotional health’ or seek help if need be? How to cultivate a culture where victims feel comfortable talking about their struggle?
The answer is simpler than it seems. It turns out the most popular metric: if you work harder, you will be more successful and then you will be happy, is scientifically backward. Training the brain to be in a positive state first, fuels productivity. However, spreading positivity everywhere, especially across traditional media is not easy. This is why I don’t like watching news. Almost every TV show ends on a negative note. Even top leaders would always sound negative when they feel they have been wronged. This they do despite all the privileges they enjoy on top of the society.
We need to promote positivity. Even something as little as genuinely asking someone how their day is going and patiently listening to their answer can go a long way. Talking about these stigmas must be treated as normally as we do about a sore throat or a viral flu. We should create a safe and welcoming environment for these people to open up without hesitation, without the fear of being judged, ridiculed or being completely ignored or invalidated. Instead, offer empathy and act with compassion. A modality shift must take place where dull status-updates or dark moments must also start getting as many likes as our narcissistic selfies. The best part is, just being attentive for a few minutes towards someone might save a life and it won’t take away much from our personal lives, and the good news is we can still continue to chase whatever it is we’re after.
How can the government help in removing these negative beliefs about mental health problems regardless of anyone’s age and regardless of what knowledge they have of mental health problems?
Firstly, promote emotional wellbeing and build resilience from birth through nationally targeted programmes and introduce a comprehensive and multi-sectoral approach to address mental health promotion, prevention, treatment, discrimination, exclusion, care and recovery. Information dissemination through blogs, newspapers, celebrity endorsed videos, TV advertisements and promotional events to help raise awareness of mental health stigma should be a priority.
Secondly, apply a socio-ecological strategy that accounts for impact on mental health of the social and physical environment, within homes, at work and in communities.
Thirdly, equip people with the knowledge, tools and resources to protect and improve their own and their families’ and friends’ mental health.
All this requires a comprehensive inclusive approach because it’s not the job of a government alone. I urge anyone who is reading this and trying to reach out to those in need of attention.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 16th, 2018.
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