October 10th, 2020 

By Rehan Piracha 


The abandoned Kaifi

Ali Kaifi thought he was a character straight out of Jerome K Jerome’s book ‘A Man Who Was A Hospital’. Kaifi, like the main character in the story, would take imagine he had all the ailments he had ever heard of. “I used to run off to laboratories after school and have my blood tests done for different ailments with my pocket money,” he says. Every time, the tests used to come negative, Kaifi would switch laboratories. Then his doubts deepened and his frustration worsened to such an extent that he could not resist shouting aloud. It was then that his family noticed that he was suffering from a mental illness.

It’s been thirteen years since Kaifi was admitted to the Fountain House, a community-run mental health facility in Lahore. According to the administration, Kaifi was ready to resume normal life and live again with his family, but his siblings are not ready to take him home.

In an interview with Voicepk.net on World Day for Mental Health, Dr. Syed Imran Murtaza, Medical Superintendent of the Fountain House defines mental health as the epicenter of human life, adding that life revolves around one’s mental well being. Refuting common notions about mental illnesses, Dr. Murtaza says every human is prone to mental illnesses, adding that many people live in denial of mental illnesses. He enumerates five elements that make up good health. Listing mental health on the top, followed by physical health, societal well-being, economic stature, and lastly spiritual well-being.

What are the symptoms of mental illness?

Speaking about the symptoms of mental illnesses, Dr. Murtaza says a change in behavior from normal to abnormal is often one of the first signs that show an individual’s mental health problems. Dr. Murtaza explains that the onset of mental illnesses is reflected in abnormal changes in a person’s behavior. For instance, he says a person who normally washes his hands once before and after a meal, will now suddenly be seen washing hands twenty times. The washing of hands twenty times is abnormal behavior, he adds. Similarly, a person who is angrily shouting instead of speaking calmly during a conversation is manifesting abnormal behavior, adding that people with mental illnesses show symptoms like seeing the invisible or think of themselves as people of high importance or rank. “If I begin to think I am the prime minister, then I have some sort of mental illness,” he says. Suicidal thoughts; distrust of dear ones; aggression, accusations are some of the symptoms that reflect that an individual is afflicted with mental illness.

6% of Pakistanis suffer from depression

According to Pakistan Neurology Awareness and Research Foundation data, 60 million out of Pakistan’s total population of 220 million, suffer from various mental health issues. At present, six percent of people in Pakistan suffer from depression while 1.5 percent suffer from schizophrenia. One percent of all Pakistani adults and two percent of Pakistan children also suffer from epilepsy.

Dr Murtaza says psychiatric illnesses are increasing across the world. The situation in Pakistan is said to be worse in terms of the treatment of psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia. For about 2.3 million patients of schizophrenia, there are about a few thousands of hospital beds in the country, he points out. People with schizophrenia require hospitalization during some period in their lifetime, he says.

“Dr. Syed Imran Murtaza “treatment of mentally-ill patients is delayed by lack of awareness and societal taboos”

According to Dr Murtaza, treatment of mentally-ill patients is delayed by lack of awareness and societal taboos. Patients are taken first to spiritual healers and charlatans instead of mental health facilities. Ultimately, the patient’s condition worsens to such a point that it requires hospitalization, he says.

Dr Murtaza advises people not to take their loved ones suffering from mental illnesses to charlatans but bring them for treatment to mental health facilities. He highlights cases of women and girls where families do not take them for treatment of depression due to social stigma. Denial and hiding will ultimately worsen the condition. Families should be supportive and open about medical treatment of girls and women suffering from psychiatric illnesses, he adds.

Loneliness and drug addiction cause of suicides in youth

About the reported rise in divorces and suicides in the society, Dr. Murtza says family structures in the country are strained. Family members are not paying attention to one another nor devoting time to each other. Cell phones and social media have disconnected people from their family members. Parents are not paying attention to their daughters and sons. Loneliness and drug addiction are some of the major reasons for suicides by young people, Dr. Murtaza. Sadly, he says not much attention is given towards the rise in drug addiction among the country’s youth population. He believes mental well being rests on the foundation of care, love, and affection, a person receives at home. “Parents need to give time to their children as well; spouses need to do the same for each other,” he says.

“Loneliness and drug addiction are one of the major reasons for suicides by young people, Dr. Murtaza”

Impact of COVID

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, Covid-19 has created a severe mental health crisis in roughly 93 per cent of the countries of the world. The pandemic has not only made it extremely difficult to treat those with existing psychiatric or neurological conditions, but even those with no history of mental health issues have been reporting symptoms associated with various psychological disorders.

Dr Murtaza agrees the COVID pandemic has led to an increase in psychiatric illnesses in the country as elsewhere in the world. The unemployment and isolation has effects on the mental health of individuals, he adds. However, Dr Murtaza says health is the last priority with people, political leaders and the government.