There is a mental health awareness and advocacy movement going on in Pakistan and it is not a moment too soon.  According to experts more than 20 million Pakistanis suffer from some form of mental health trauma or disorder which rounds up to 10 percent of the country’s total population. Society’s tendency to avoid dialogue about mental health will no longer suffice. The hard questions are being asked.

The idea behind the movement is to remove the stigma attached to mental health, be it depression, an eating disorder, or other related conditions. The stigma creates a blockade for all those who require treatment, via counselling, medication or a combination of the both. What’s equally important is the emergence and constant support of one’s community when dealing with a mental health issue.

People dodge mental health care to avoid being labeled negatively. “Paagal” or crazy is often used as a common insult, totally disregarding that an impaired or altered mental state can occur to any  individual at any time. Focused mental health awareness and advocacy movements must address the ‘log kya kahenge’ phenomenon; where social stress and fear of ‘losing face’ causes families to compromise the well-being of a family member.

Prejudice stemming from stigma surrounding mental health is damaging, robbing people of educational opportunities, access to employment, health care and housing. Not only that, these are based on stereotypes of what mental health disorders/conditions look like.  Individuals can practice something called self-stigma, where they apply those negative stereotypes to themselves.

How can this perception be changed? Television plays or short skits demonstrating the need for active listening and empathy from friends and family when one is seeking or is undergoing therapy may do the trick. Popular mediums have the power of positively impacting behaviour and changing mindsets across a larger population; we are nothing if not hooked to soap operas featuring our favourite stars.

There is the Karachi-based Pakistan Association for Mental Health Association that has been airing brief t.v. ads to raise awareness and tolerance about depression and anxiety.  One of the major issues behind the continuing ignorance regarding mental health issues is the shortage of trained psychiatrists in Pakistan.  According to Al Jazeera,  the lack of qualified mental health professionals is a significant barrier to healing our communities.

“Pakistan has one of the lowest mental illness patient-to-doctor ratios in the world. In a seminar held earlier this year in Karachi, a prominent Pakistani doctor revealed that Pakistan has only 380 trained psychiatrists — meaning that there is roughly one psychiatrist available per half-million people. The result is that even when patients fighting something as common as depression or anxiety recognize their symptoms, overcome the stigma, gain the support of their families and start looking for medical help, there simply isn’t much help to be had.”

The stigma related to mental health care extends to the Pakistani and Muslim diaspora.  The younger generation is well aware of the lack of support and infrastructure available to them in the realm of mental health care. In Boston, the Greater Boston Muslim Health Initiative, run by a group of Pakistani-Americans and their friends, has taken the initiative to tackle this issue head-on.  They are going straight to the heart of the community, the mosque, to start a frank dialogue and clear cultural misconceptions and taboos around the topic of Mental Health. Why the mosque, you wonder? It is perceived as a sign of weak ‘Imaan’ or faith/resolve in your religion if one is depressed. This is a dangerous perception that has already damaged many lives and families.  Behavioural disorders, abuse stemming from undiagnosed or misdiagnosed conditions, can cause generational trauma. To break the pattern of abuse, intervention by way of therapy is key. GBHI’s focus is to encourage community members to actively seek support and treatment when needed.

The Institute of Muslim Mental Health describes it’s core mission as community outreach,research and the education of both Muslim and non-Muslim doctors about cultural issues that impact Muslims. The website quite comprehensive, it even includes an online directory to help Muslim-Americans find a therapist near them.

If you or someone you care for is exhibiting unusual behaviour, the first step is going to a safe place and engaging in dialogue. The next step would be to go to a well-reputed, emphatic medical professional or therapist. This is usually where the resistance we have been discussing crops up.    Wellness works both spiritually and physically, so reason with yourself or your friend that this visit is just like going to any other expert. Going to a mental health professional is just like going to the dentist to get a painful cavity fixed. What seems like a rather simplistic analogy is nothing but the truth.

Three Online Resources for Mental Health Awareness and Support

A. If there is one site to bookmark today, then Psychcentral is it. It’s core features include brief psychological tests and quizzes, as well as forum and support groups covering an exhaustive list of topics, from Sleep Issues to Eating Disorders, which can be joined anonymously. Another interesting feature is the Mood Tracker which can be used in consultation with a therapist to identify triggers or situations that affect your mood in a significant way. I recommend you sign up for Psychcentral’s weekly newsletter is chockfull of engaging articles with titles like “The Grass Is Actually Greener Right Where You Are”.

B. Need to talk to someone immediately? Are you feeling like there is nothing to live for? Unsuicide provides online suicide prevention and  crisis counselling directory via various methods, from live chats, to emails, and peer support forums.

C. If vlogging is more of your thing, Kati Morton’s videos are a great place to begin. She covers essential questions like ‘What will happen during my 1st therapy appointment?” to “How to teach people to respect us” in a friendly and relatable manner.

Remember: You or loved one must still consult a certified medical professional for a complete diagnosis before embarking on any treatment.