Seeking professional help still a stigma as people wake up to mental health

Published: December 16, 2018
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Representational image. PHOTO: EXPRESS

Representational image. PHOTO: EXPRESS

Representational image. PHOTO: EXPRESS The writer is a Tribune staffer and a psychotherapist. She tweets @nhd00

KARACHI: When you are sinking in the hollows of emptiness, the abrasiveness of reality becomes background noise. It’s a constant struggle. You yearn to fill the void — to pull out of the shadows. But equally strong is the urge to find ‘permanent’ relief.

Recent incidents of suicides have managed to garner the right responses — mostly. We saw more empathy than disdain, more emphasis on mental health than suffering in silence. Most importantly, we saw survivors open up about their experience. Slowly but gradually, the stigma around depression can be seen washing away.

The stigma around seeking professional help, however, is a tough nut to crack.

The undue pressure one accumulates on oneself by putting on a brave face can be easily avoided if the stigma around seeking professional help is tackled.

It then does not come as a surprise that amid the right responses; majority showed their availability and asked those suffering to reach out. I could not help but quail. Why? No matter how purely-intended the “I’m here if you want to talk” or “I’m just a message away” be, it may do more damage than good.

By no means do I mean to discourage family, friends and even strangers from offering help. It is heartening to see the encouragement. It is also imperative that we learn the best way to help.

Psychological disorders are not a lack or failure of coping skills but conditions which, if undiagnosed and untreated, can potentially be life threatening. These have the ability to cloud your thinking process so thoroughly that life becomes intolerable.

The WHO puts the number of people who successfully commit suicide at more than 800,000. In 2012, it reported over 13,000 suicides from Pakistan — an estimate would put the number of suicide attempts at 150,000 to 300,000.

For every suicide, there are more attempted suicides.

When we say we are here to talk; we are putting the burden to reach out on the ones already suffering. In the throes of darkness, there may be subtle cries for attention but a conscious effort to seek help is often beyond the thresholds of action.

The onus is on us to catch the elusive calls for help.

Help, however, is not limited to ‘talking’. There is a strong possibility that an individual with no background in mental healthcare may end up triggering intense emotions — thereby making the situation worse. It takes years of training as a mental health professional to learn to avoid transference and be objective.

The lack of awareness surrounding mental healthcare has us believe that talk therapy is just that: talk. Having a listener helps. Crying, venting helps too. Healing is much easier when you have support and people cheering you on.

Nonetheless, when it comes to getting better; one needs professional help.

Therapy is more than just letting out your frustrations. It starts with a diagnosis and ends with empowering the individual for everyday battles. A psychological diagnosis is as important as a medical one. If you do not know what troubles you, understanding and overcoming its complexities leaves you exhausted — physically and mentally.

From understanding cognitive biases to social influence, distinguishing between psychological disorder (for instance: depression, clinical depression and persistent depressive disorder) and learning techniques that help manage symptoms — a therapy plan is the pathway to a productive life.

The possibility of a separate diagnosis altogether cannot be ruled out either. Undiagnosed and untreated personality, dissociative and stress disorders may come across as depression as well.

For caregivers, here is a short list of the basics; beginning with listening, offering reassurance but not advise and most importantly; staying calm and not making assumptions.

Gauging the intensity of the situation, encourage the person to seek professional help when ready. Be supportive but firm. Find a therapist; accompany them to the appointments — help taking the first step towards recovery.

However, do not force therapy upon someone as it may lead to aversion. Nor should you try to pry — therapy is confidential and it should remain so.

Lastly, don’t get consumed by wanting to help others that you lose yourself in the process.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2018.

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