Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Our defences against insanity

Writing this column, week after week, is verily a disconcerting exercise. One is constrained to keep chewing the cud because the overall situation remains grim and threatening. Yes, there are always new pegs on which I can hang my thoughts. I do get some respite when I have an occasion to travel abroad. Yet, on the domestic front every major development is plugged into the continuing war against terrorism and the terrorists’ war against Pakistan. The more you think about this conflict, the more you wonder if there is any silver lining on the horizon. And suicide bomb blasts are never in short supply.

Obviously, the picture that is painted in the print and the electronic media is clouded with gloom. This gloom is overwhelmingly reflected in your daily encounters with friends and relatives. In recent days, this darkness has deepened with the global economic meltdown and it becomes a larger concern in the middle class because many of the bright and the beautiful of this class have emigrated to the realm of the free market.

Against this backdrop, I had some difficult thoughts to think about media’s role in mental health awareness and advocacy. Of course, Friday was observed worldwide as the mental health day and we had a number of seminars to mark the day in a rather ritualistic manner. After all, the calendar is strewn with such occasions and every subject has a perfunctory dimension of looking at the role of the media in that specific context.

Anyhow, I participated in a panel discussion at the seminar held at the Aga Khan University and remained unsure about the media’s role in improving the mental health situation. One disturbing thought was whether the media, if it were to do its duty meaningfully, would not aggravate the situation in terms of generating more anxiety and depression among the people. Even though our television channels, though unduly afflicted with the breaking news syndrome, have done a great job of portraying the lives of the poor and the depressed, the reality of our existence, in all its clinical details, remains camouflaged.

Before our panel discussion, an AKU psychiatrist made a brief presentation on the current mental health situation in Pakistan. We do realise that the situation is very depressing. But the facts that emerged in the presentation were truly horrifying. It is the same, yes, in other sectors. Still, the health scene, taken in its entirety, is such that its knowledge can make a healthy mind sick. Is this the reason that the rulers resort to the defence mechanism of not looking at it? Are we not in denial because we do not know what can be done to change all this?

I always find it interesting to confront popularly held views about the media. Irrespective of how rational or irrational these views are, it is also difficult to defend the media in its institutional functioning. This surely is not the time to deliberate on this complex issue. However, it becomes hard to contend with antagonistic attitudes that are prevalent in our society. It is established that a certain percentage of people are afflicted with mental disorders in every society. In our case, the fact that the society is in a state of disequilibrium is a matter of additional concern.

Having said all this, I do recognise the need for providing some hope and cheer to the aggrieved populace and though the rulers have a larger role to play in this context, the media could also make a large contribution in this enterprise. So far as medical treatment for mental health patients is concerned, our deprivations seem insurmountable. A recent WHO report said that three in four mental patients in developing countries receive no treatment. It could be worse in Pakistan, considering its position in any index that relates to human development.

In spite of all this, we can recall the time not too long ago when the morale of the people was high and they could breathe hope in the air. Yes, I am alluding to the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of judiciary sacked on November 3, 2007 – the first anniversary of which is about three weeks away. The role that the media played in that movement was also a great assertion of its power and ability to promote the cause of morality and rule of law.

That mood – though May 12, 2007 was a sinful demonstration of how the aspirations of the people can be subverted with the use of brute power – somehow sustained during the political campaign for the elections. We should also try and understand the impact of the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December. It was an act of terror and changed the entire dynamics of our politics. However, the outcome of the February 18 elections served as an antidepressant for the nation and the repeated promises for the restoration of the judiciary, made in solemn agreements, sustained our hopes that a new beginning was possible.

Come to think of it, the betrayal of that promise has effectively derailed that process that had injected a tranquillizing element in the national psyche and what we have now is the depressing realisation that our rulers are not committed to high ideals of morality and integrity and trust. If this looks like a diversion, my point really is the paucity of social virtues in our system. Add to this the rise in terrorism and the apparent lack of a sense of direction about how to deal with it. Our very, very poor governance exacerbates every malady. Consequently, fear and anxiety and depression have worsened our mental health situation. Just think of the poor, ordinary people who find it so hard to just survive.

So, how can we cheer ourselves up and retain some hope in our distressed lives? It was noted at the seminar that mental health does not only mean absence of mental disorders but a sense be wellbeing in which individuals can realise their potential and lead productive lives. That means that we should build social capital and an intellectual infrastructure to be able to understand our problems.

This is a struggle that demands the involvement of all concerned citizens. Social activism, then, is one palliative that may reduce our pain and anguish. We need to regenerate hope at the collective level. Perhaps the anniversary of the sacking of the judiciary by a military dictator can be a good occasion to renew that sense of involvement in a collective endeavour.

Unfortunately, the overall situation has prompted most of us to seek individual solutions for collective problems, manifested by private guards, private schools and private clinics. But, ultimately, there is no escape from the reality of our collective existence.

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