Mental health: are we ignoring the warning signs?

The stigma associated with mental health has to go

Aine Moorad September 21, 2019
The writer is a freelance journalist, editor and owner of She is a Member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada

Humanity seems to have failed us. Atrocious acts of torture are manifesting themselves across the social fabric of our country. Yet, after talking about them and fretting over them we become desensitised, only to see them repeat in a few months.

The latest victim of our institutional butchery was a 10th grader, Hafiz Hunain Bilal. Beaten to death by his teacher at a private school in Lahore, Hafiz’s head was banged against a wall several times, leading to unconsciousness and eventually death. His fault was that he had apparently not memorised his homework!

What is more shocking is that these horrendous acts occur inside learning institutions, where children are supposed to be protected and nurtured. The incident happened in a classroom with other students present. Them failing to report it in time makes us wonder if it was fear of being beaten or victimised which held them back or it was desensitisation to such incidents. Where are we lagging as a society that allows these “professionals” to act in the manner they do? Such violence calls for an investigation into a flawed system.

Though the reasons behind such incidents can be many, as a nation we should not disregard the role of mental health, which “includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel and act.”

In a paper entitled, “Mental Health in Pakistan: Where do We Stand?” for the Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association, Amin A Muhammad Gadit wrote, “The incidence and prevalence [of mental health problems] have increased tremendously in the background of growing insecurity, terrorism, economical problems, political uncertainty, unemployment and disruption of the social fabric.”

“Research suggests that every fourth house in Pakistan has occupants who suffer from some form of mental health issue. A research found depression to be equivalent to blindness or paralysis of the lower limbs, whereas psychosis was equated to paralysis of all four limbs,” says Dr Saima Qureshi, General Secretary for the Pakistan Association for Mental Health (PAMH).

It’s time we deal with this mental health crisis which is tearing our society apart. The stigma associated with mental health has to go. Families and communities must openly accept that mental illnesses like other illnesses are just as fatal, and require medical and psychological intervention.

The PAMH declared January 2019 as a month to raise awareness about mental health. They planned seminars in Karachi on stress and anger management, mental illness, child mental health, among others.

Lastly, stringent law and order is needed so people think twice before reacting like this. A code of conduct and imposition of a severe punishment must be imposed for such acts. Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari described the Hafiz Hunain Bilal incident as “horrific” and said it wasn’t the first time such an episode had happened. She tweeted that the bill against corporal punishment had been with the Law Ministry and hoped it would be cleared soon.

Losing children at the hands of teachers is beyond despicable and shows the direction we are heading in as a nation. Rather than a major public uproar, followed by possible arrests and a period of silence every time something like this happens, a holistic review of our system is critical, so such teachers are never allowed to practice.

The government must conduct thorough investigations, identify underlying factors that lead people in positions of responsibility to act the way they do. Intervention and remediation strategies must be implemented. Employers also need to conduct detailed background checks and hold multiple interview sessions with candidates — and not only see their academic qualifications, but their emotional and psychological state as well.

Unless the fundamental reasons leading to these atrocities are addressed, we’ll continue living in a black hole unknowing what threats will come our way.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2019.

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