Is mental health really ‘health’?


(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Dr. Unsa Athar, a graduate of King Edward Medical University, Lahore. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

My first exposure towards the concept of suicide was when I was about 10 years old perhaps. Or 12. I do not remember exactly. We had a family of 5 living nearby. And one woeful day came the news that the man of the house, the father, had shot himself because he was in debt. He had no money to pay back the loans. I saw that family fall apart. I saw those kids finding it hard to dodge people’s invasive questions. Days turned into months, months into years and I forgot about that incident.

The second time I was reminded of the phenomenon of suicide was when a dear tutor/friend had to witness his sister killing herself. I never talked to him about it. I had questions but it felt inappropriate to probe. I just knew his sister had overdosed on some sleeping pills. I lost touch with that friend over the years. Today, I wish I could ask him how he coped with the trauma of it all.

Living in a society where culture and religion are often confused, where people regard epilepsy as being possessed by an evil spirit, where depression is considered nothing but lack of spiritually, coming to terms with the mere existence of mental health issues was a difficult task. When I was in my 3rd year of MBBS, a loved one of mine got diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder Type I. The maniac phase of it was hard enough for me to process, I had no idea how to explain it to my  family in layman terms. Three years later, I was gifted with the diagnosis of major depressive disorder.

The point of this tragic encounter is to share with you all the struggle I had to go through to get my family and myself for that matter, the mental health care we deserved. In my area, psychologist and psychiatrist are not really sure what they are doing. The one’s that are actually competent are the ones that burn a hole in your pocket. ‘Mom, I need money for therapy’ is something our kids cannot say to their parents. ‘Mom, I need money for a dinner party’ is easier to get you the bucks you want. The ignorance of society, even of the literate ones, toward mental health issues leads to stigmatization. People who need help are pushed into shadows. And in these shadows, they find solace in suicide or mania or crime. It becomes their own version of sanity. Trust me, the people who kill themselves just want the pain to end.

If we have any plans of diminishing the rates of depression and suicide in our area, the need of the hour is to end the stigmatization. We need to accept there is a problem before we can come up with solutions. We can train better, more empathic psychiatrists when we stop labelling them as ‘crazies’. If I had a nickel for every time I heard ‘Do not pursue psychiatry, these people end up losing their own minds’ I would be richer than Bill gates!

I am writing this article in the hopes that more people with experience regarding mental health issues and the lack of appropriate care would speak up. We need more and affordable inpatient facilities for people with mental health disorders. We need 24/7 availability of facilities for psychiatric emergencies. We need more psychologists, specially in the public sector, where people with no money can come up and talk about whatever they want to talk about. Therapy should not be a luxury; it should be as readily available as dispirin!  Stop saying ‘Depression is a disease of the first world countries.’ It is a disease. A disease needs treatment. A disease needs a doctor. A disease needs a medicine.  Treat it like a disease and the patients will not kill themselves.

About the author

Dr. Unsa Athar is a graduate of King Edward Medical University, Lahore. She has been an avid lover of acting, reading and writing. She is currently working in the field of community medicine and public health and aims to create awareness regarding psychiatric disorders in order to end the stigmatization. She dreams of the day when walking into a therapist office wouldn’t be frowned upon by the society that she dwells.










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