Suicide and mental health oblivion: A looming epidemic

2018-06-04T01:12:45+05:00 Maha Shafqat Khan

MENTAL HEALTH

islamabad - A young boy jumped from the third floor of a mall in Islamabad on Thursday, the CCTV recording of which went viral on social media this week, the apparent suicide is a wakeup call not just for the society but the government as well. Mental health remains one of the most shirked health issues in Pakistan due to a number of different factors. The most common mental health issue is depression which is seen as a sign of weakness instead of an illness. Stigma, discrimination, and neglect prevent care and treatment from reaching people with mental disorders, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the last few years, the capital has witnessed a number of suicide cases, a majority of which includes teenagers and young adults, incidents which could have been stopped, if we had better mental health facilities and more awareness. Mental illnesses attract an astonishing amount of prejudice in our society, due to which thousands of people living with these conditions do not receive the care they need. In 2012, 18-year-old Khursheed, a student at IMCB shot himself in the head after a row with his father regarding entry tests. In 2017 an A- level student in Islamabad shot herself with her father’s pistol, on the same day a 15-year-old girl committed suicide by consuming poison within the jurisdiction of Tarnol police. The same year another 15-year-old boy shot himself after allegedly falling in love with his teacher, followed by another case of suicide, this time of a student at PIEAS who was found hanging from an iron rack that was fixed on the roof using a rope in his dorm room, 2 months after which an engineer who graduated from NUST committed suicide after failing to find a job.

These are just a handful of cases that ended up surfacing on traditional and social media, but hundreds of other such cases remain unreported due to social stigmas and legal issues connected to suicide, especially since suicide is prohibited in Islam and Pakistan being a predominantly Muslim country faces the biggest obstacle regarding mental health reforms which is the lack of dialogue and conversation about this topic due to its ‘haram’ and taboo nature. Suicide has been decriminalised in most countries, but a handful of countries still have laws against it due to which patients who have previously attempted to commit suicide are scared to visit medical professionals, Pakistan was one of the few countries where suicide was considered a criminal offence punishable under law, as per section 325, PPC 1860 wherein “Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.” But after a lot of struggle by mental health activists and professionals, just recently the Senate unanimously passed a key bill to decriminalize suicide and to repeal section 325.

A host of factors such as bullying, peer and parental pressure, exposure to violence or abuse at home, cyber harassment, blackmailing, sexual abuse, slut-shaming, gender dysmorphia, poverty and most importantly the loneliness that comes due to lack of inclusion in the society for being different from others due to sexual orientation, disability, class etc. are some of the main causes for suicide-related deaths.

As compared to the 80s and 90s, things have drastically changed since the boom in user-friendly technology. Phones and tablets have taken over playgrounds and people have become more isolated than ever due to social media, a tool that opens the door to cyberbullying, fake lifestyles, constant attempts at keeping up with appearances and more peer pressure than ever. Popular TV series such as “13 Reasons Why” ends up glamorising and glorifying suicide as there is a very thin line between glorifying it and shedding light on it, hence making kids believe that it’s cool to kill yourself or to take revenge from all those who have wronged you by doing so, especially this series since the aforementioned show includes imagery that could be potentially harmful to those already dealing with suicidal thoughts. Imagining what life would be like if you weren’t around anymore, leading to imagination and thoughts about killing yourself to get back at those that have hurt you is a very common tendency among those suffering from mental illnesses, and such TV/web series end up encouraging vulnerable teenagers in similar situations to do the same as the protagonist who commits suicide.

According to a study by WHO, the allocated mental health budget in Pakistan is just 0.4% of the total health care expenditures. Only physician-based clinics are present in the country. Private clinics are popular among the elite and upper-middle-class section of the society, where psychiatrists are charging as much as 4000rs for a one-hour session, an amount that most Pakistani’s cannot afford.

The lack of concern and expenditure by the government is feeding into the mental health epidemic that our country could possibly face very soon. Firearms and insecticides are two of the most common methods of suicide, and there is a dire need to spread awareness about the careful storage of both firearms and insecticides especially in households where a person is suffering from a mental disease or has shown any suicidal signs or tendency. Moreover, educational institutions need to provide counselling to all its students and teachers in order to avoid such incidents especially those caused due to pressure related to grades and other school/college related issues especially “breakups” which despite a blind eye from the society are a reality, and continue to be one of the biggest reasons behind suicides among teens.

According to a number of different suicide reports, the highest rate of suicide among Pakistani men is 5.2/100,000 in Rawalpindi. Men outnumber women by 2:1. This disparity stems from the “men can’t cry” attitude wherein men are looked at as pillars of strength that are incapable of showing any sign of weakness or emotion, hence taking away all the channels to vent out the sorrow, depression and anxiety that gets bottled up inside them not just because of societal and peer pressure but also because of trying to stay strong for too long since any hint of depression or anxiety are seen as signs of weakness in our society. The sad truth is that this is the other side of the coin of patriarchy, which is not just harmful to women but for men as well. It is imperative to change this mindset and allow men to express their pain, be vulnerable and seek help for depression and anxiety. Whereas, when it comes to women, we need to stop accusing them of “seeking attention” or simply blaming it on their “PMS” when they complain about depression and suicidal thoughts. Mental illness is a real thing, affecting people regardless of gender, race or creed and we need to treat it like any other physical illness.

What we desperately need at this point is for the upcoming government to take up the issue of mental health seriously on a national level and treat it like the looming threat that it is by improving mental health services in the country. Moreover, communities need to provide social support and remove the stigma attached to such illnesses by collaborating with civil society groups and by getting involved in dialogue and awareness regarding the topic, but most of all, on a personal level, each person needs to talk, help or simply be emphatic towards all those people that seem to show signs of depression or/and suicidal tendencies, because you never know what could be going on in someone else’s mind, and one positive action that you take could save them and one negative action could push them over the edge, so choose wisely, because being kind doesn’t cost a dime.

Countless people in the country, especially the capital continue to kill themselves while their families continue to cover it up to protect their respect after failing to take their illness seriously due to their ignorance and lack of awareness, in such a society mental health is a concept lingering in oblivion thus awareness is imperative, government, medical professionals, and the entire society needs to support each other in order to provide treatment and care to all those who need it and that is the only way to move forward and avoid innumerable mortalities.

 

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