The Department of Psychology, University of Karachi celebrated Mental Health Week 2016 from 25th to 28th October.  It opened with the main event that was themed “Dispelling the stigma – Mental Illness and Cancer”, in hopes of raising awareness against the prevalent stigmas associated with breast cancer and mental illnesses. The event was sponsored by National Bank of Pakistan (NBP), Zong and Genetic Pharmaceuticals.

The day began with a theater performance revolving around a girl’s fight for survival as a breast cancer patient in a family that was hesitant to talk about it. The story followed the girl on her journey from the dark depths of her illness towards recovery and self-empowerment. The play shed light on a key issue relating to reluctance showed by male family members in providing much needed social support to women in their family, as a consequence of prevailing stigmas. 

Prof Dr. Farah Iqbal, the incumbent chairperson of psychology department at the university, formally welcomed the dignitaries and talked about various forms of mental illnesses, which, she said, included anxiety, depression, personality disorders, trauma and eating disorders.

It was proceeded by a public panel discussion comprising of notable psychiatrists; Dr Iqbal Afridi and Dr Raza ur Rehman, psychologists; Dr Asha Bedar, Ms Erum Khan Ghazi and Ms Rubina Feroz, oncologist; Dr Lubna M Vohra, and celebrity guest Ms Sania Saeed.

“We are living in a world where if you break an arm, everyone runs to sign your cast but if you tell them you have depression they run the other way", Program coordinator and Faculty Member, Department of Psychology at UoK, Ms. Zahra Ali, initiated the panel discussion held at the Arts Auditorium on October 25th with over 300 people in attendance.

"Around 16% of mental illness patients are victims of bullying and violence. I have seen over half a million patients in my lifetime who have been nothing but respectful”, Dr Iqbal Afridi said, addressing common misconceptions regarding harmful behavior shown by people suffering from mental illnesses.

The panel also highlighted the recent controversial ruling of the Supreme Court to execute Imdad Ali, a patient of paranoid schizophrenia, on the grounds that schizophrenia is a ‘recoverable disease’. Dr Iqbal Afridi brought to attention the devastating effects this ruling would have on those 30% patients of schizophrenia receiving funds from the government. Dr Raza ur Rehman urged the community of mental health professionals to take a stand against this preposterous decision, appealing the concerned law makers to leave matters of mental health to mental health professionals.

Sania Saeed urged the audience to open their minds through diverse reading, in order to move forward from prevalent petty debates regarding the use of the term ‘breast’ in breast cancer. “What do you call it then? A cap or a shoe? ”, she said, adding a lighter touch to an otherwise heavy topic. She further went on to highlight the role of the media in worsening this stigma by objectifying and sexualizing the female body.

“I have seen husbands deciding whether their wives should get their breasts removed or not. Is this their decision to take?” Dr Lubna M. Vohra questioned as she shared her experiences regarding the prevalence of stigma associated with breast cancer and how it forces women into silence. She further highlighted how stress could contribute to early age breast cancer by increasing the genetic age of our cells, making young people more prone to certain illnesses. She also called attention to the society’s dilemma of easily spending money on material things and showing reluctance when asked to spend the same on a routine breast exam.

“Social support is the most integral part of reducing stress which in turn can reduce a lot of our problems.” Ms Rubina Feroz said, stressing the importance of social support as both a preventive and recuperative measure against any mental or physical illness. The panel also agreed on the importance of social support from male family members in helping women deal with emotional and physical problems.

Ms Erum Ghazi further emphasized the utter need to ask patients what they want first before following the common practice of making decisions for them. “Maintaining normalcy is the best thing you can do for them.” she added.

In highlighting the devastating effects of mental illness in breast cancer, Dr Raza ur Rehman shocked the audience when he revealed, “Prognosis for breast cancer patients gets 6 times worse if it is accompanied with depression”.

Dr Asha Bedar shed light on the unfortunate circumstances of being a woman with breast cancer and mental illness in Pakistan, facing a triple stigma. She emphasized how the constant pressure on women to fulfill their societal roles and responsibilities puts them under immense stress to achieve perfection as a way to gain approval. This added stress could be a contributing factor in rising rates of breast cancer.

The panel discussion ended with Former Chairperson, Department of Psychology, UoK, Dr. Anila Amber Malik reemphasizing the dire need to raise awareness and fight against prevalent stigmas in light of the ever increasing number of mental illness and breast cancer cases in Pakistan.

After the panel discussion, efforts were made to engage the audience in the cause by putting up themed gaming stalls and bake sales. The Arts lobby was creatively decorated with green and pink, symbolizing mental health and breast cancer awareness. As a show of solidarity with people fighting breast cancer and mental illnesses, attendees were also encouraged to wear pink or green. A stall for the ‘HEC and Pink Ribbon Youth Awareness Drive 2016’ was dedicated to gathering funds for Pakistan’s first Breast Cancer Hospital and distributing breast cancer awareness brochures. A referral stall was set up by the students who had put together a comprehensive referral list to provide people with easy access to information regarding practicing psychologists, psychiatrists and related institutions in Karachi.

The Mental Health Week 2016 continued with workshops on stress management held from the 26th to 28th October. They were led by psychologists; Dr. Zi Asma Haneef Khan, Ms. Syeda Saadia Ahmed, Dr Amena Zehra Ali and Prof Dr. Qudsia Tariq. The workshops were aimed at helping people improve their quality of life by identifying and effectively managing stress prone thinking.