Last week, I wrote about some mental disorders that are not only bad, but have positive side-effects, too. That doesn’t mean that psychological disorders are good; it just means that one can compensate for the negative effects and turn bad into good, to some extent. Often, families who have a child with a mental disorder or illness speak about how many positive things the child and the situation teach the parents and the other children in the family. At the same time, everyone would have liked that all children were born without special needs. I am sure that parents and siblings of challenged and handicapped children have prayed and wished for the child to be healed, not having to carry extra burdens through life. The same goes for all mental disorders and illnesses in youth, adults, and the elderly, too.

Mental health challenges are very common, but not spoken much about in serious ways. Sufferers are often not treated well and sometimes, they are rather stashed away than helped, even sent away to become beggars and homeless. To have a special needs child or other family members with mental health issues can be felt as a curse or spell, or described in other ways of superstition, suggesting the family has done something wrong. True, it can be a heavy burden for family members to have a person with mental health issues in the home.

There is a stigma attached to mental illnesses and disorders, even in 2020 when we ought to know better. This is so in spite of the fact that some 20-25 percent of all of us sooner or later in life will experience challenges that are so severe that they would need professional treatment. Alas, often clinics and hospitals have less expertise than needed, although most health workers have some training and experience in handling mental health issues. There are some specialists in separate wards in general hospitals, and there are a few mental hospitals in the country. Also, there are psychologists and counsellors in some NGOs and private clinics.

For people who develop challenges in the youth or as young adults, and also later in life, it is important that those who suffer from disorders and illnesses admit that professional help is needed. It should not just be swept under the carpet as is so often done due to the stigma attached.   

Some mental health illnesses are inherited or congenital, but some only come to the surface later in life, many times in young adulthood. Some illnesses are caused by society and the environment one lives in. They can be made worse by a difficult home and school environment, by trauma and negative experiences in childhood and later in life, and also by challenges at work and neighbourhood, and so on. Children and young people can develop bad mental health because they have learning difficulties, social difficulties, including mobbing, and other things, for example, how they look and are, and how their sexual orientation is, and other worries. Some youth, especially girls, may develop eating disorders, usually caused by dissatisfaction with their appearance and feeling of being overweight. Boys more than girls may become delinquent or they may become withdrawn and too quiet. Religious doubt can be a problem for people, indeed in a country like Pakistan where religion plays a central role in daily life; but religion can also play a positive role related to mental health issues.

Generally, youth go through a problematic time, related to education and how well they score at tests and exams, indeed so in today’s competitive world. They worry about jobs, employment, sexual issues, and many other things, indeed also how their parents, grandparents and siblings are doing and if they need help. It is important that parents, teachers and other adults, and siblings and age mates, talk about everyday existential issues to avoid that young people develop mental health issues and drift away from mainstream society, and perhaps become substance abusers, even depressed and suicidal. Not only young people but older people, too, need support from others, and the youth have a responsibility to help, not only be helped.

 Luckily, in most or all societies people have in recent years become more aware of different forms of exclusion, mobbing and various forms of discrimination. Physical and mental abuse is also reported more often, but much is still kept secret. Sexual abuse is talked more about, but the right actions are still rudimentary; children and youth must be taught how to protect themselves better. When we suspect something could be wrong, we should try to find out, yes, discreetly, but not just look the other way.

We have a long way to go in society and the education institutions to give special education children fair and equal treatment, so they, too, can grow and live better on their terms. Far too often, children with special education needs are stashed away. Even milder disorders are not diagnosed. The most important tool for teachers and other adults is to observe and be alert. Children must be taught to talk about issues that worry them, and not be afraid of reporting issues they find uncomfortable, unfair, or directly wrong.

Some social and psychological issues may be temporary and the person himself or herself, together with the immediate surroundings, can manage them and sort them out without too much drama. Yet, we should be aware of the fact that many issues last for long and need professional attention. Many women may suffer throughout life due to lack of independence and power to manage their own lives; in many societies, it is the men and also older females that make all important decisions above the head of the women.

If the stigma attached to mental health issues was less, and there was more and better competence in clinics, hospitals, and schools, many issues could be sorted out faster and better, benefitting those who need help and the society at large. I hope that in future the mental health issues will be given much more attention and that there will be a greater understanding for such issues. The world we live in is not going to become easier, rather more competitive, complicated and difficult—and the corona pandemic adds to the challenges. We need to prepare ourselves better for life’s journey—in schools, workplaces, religious associations, NGOs, and society at large. How to live and cope in life, in everyday situations and in crises, should be a school subject. The government must allocate more funds, not only for physical health, but indeed also for mental health which today receives negligible amounts. Healthier people will be able to contribute to economic and social development and growth. It will alleviate pain in sufferers and help people achieve more of their potential, as God wants us to do.

Tomorrow is August 14, and I would like to wish my readers a very happy celebration – taking into account necessary corona precautions and related mental health challenges. We should also feel happy and thankful for all the small and big things we already do enjoy—in the great country of Pakistan—knowing, too, that work must go on. Remember, we are all needed.

Happy Independence Day 2020!