Understanding Mental Illnesses: The Urgent Need For Awareness in Pakistan

When it comes to spreading awareness about mental illnesses, no one can deny that the people of Pakistan have been slow to embrace the paradigm shift. Whether the cause of this lateness can be attributed to denial or to other psychosocial factors, one cannot say. The only thing we can be certain of is that this particular wave of awareness crept slowly upon people who once believed that mental illness could be the effect of losing touch with faith or perhaps because the idea of being mentally ill seemed so western to society that the only way to cope with the knowledge was to constantly live in a fog of denial.

However, the past matters not.

For decades, we have considered mental illnesses to be the exact opposite of happiness – if this particular idea is true then everyone who has not been yet diagnosed with a mental illness should surely be happy. Now that no one can deny that both these propositions are false, we discover a deeper truth to mental illnesses; being mentally ill does not mean that the cure will grant you eternal happiness. Nor is it equal to experiencing everyday emotions in an irregular pattern.

When you’re suffering from a mental illness, all emotions manifest themselves in an exaggerated, magnified form, which is very different from how everyone else displays them.

Let’s take some general examples of mental illnesses.

Depression is different from being sad. If you feel sad for three days in a row, it does not mean, in any way, that you are suffering from a depressive episode. The diagnostic criterion for depression states that a person must have been suffering from the depressive episode for at least two weeks and should not have occurred after drug use or the death of a loved one. This depressive episode consists of anhedonia, fatigue, lack of sleep, psychomotor disturbances, passiveness etc. Being sad is extremely different no matter how similar the pattern seems to be – always seek out help, even if it is from a friend if you suspect that you might be depressed. Like all biological illnesses, mental illnesses too, have a treatment and a cure; there is no need to regard them as taboo.

But when you reduce depression to simple sadness, all because you have been feeling down for less than one week, then you’re doing a disservice to those who are genuinely suffering from this particular illness.

The same principle applies to another psychological disorder – anxiety. Feeling stress or being worried right before an exam or an important interview is not equal to anxiety. People diagnosed with anxiety disorders feel as if they have no control over a particular situation – their anxiety manifests itself either in the form of a physical reaction such as sweating, tremors, irregular heartbeat but also elicits responses that are inappropriate for the situation. The butterflies in your stomach, yeah, that’s not anxiety.

Skipped meals for one day? Not an eating disorder. Experienced severe mood swings once in 24 hours? Again, not bipolar disorder. The list, ladies, and gentlemen can go on and on.

One of the things we, as a society, need to understand is that for many mental illnesses, pinpointing one particular cause is extremely difficult in many cases. If we try to establish a cause and effect relationship between lack of faith or happiness with mental illnesses, we are essentially blaming the patient for being responsible for their own condition, which could not be further away from the truth.

Mental illnesses stem from physiological factors, genetic factors and can often be triggered by psychosocial stress. Those who insist that praying regularly or turning to religion is going to cure this particular affliction should know that everyone consults a certified doctor when their illness is physical, so why should the same formula not be applied when the problem is psychological? Is it because unlike physical illnesses one cannot see the problem with an organ when it comes to psychological disorders? Why preach the mentally ill to turn to religion and love in order to cure their illness?

Shed the cloak of ignorance and look up mental illnesses from a psychological point of view rather than ignorantly debating on the basis of cues you picked up from television or fiction.

Remember to reach out to your loved ones if you suspect they suffer from any mental illness instead of turning the tables on them by blaming their behavior. Unlatch the stigma attached to mental illness and make sure you do your individual part in creating a healthy, knowledgeable and rational society!

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