Let’s talk about the hidden pandemic plaguing our country
As I sit down to write today, the subject foremost on my mind is one that has already been written about extensively. And yet, when one looks around, it does not seem that much has changed in the last several years in how our society approaches this issue. It is also foremost on my mind given the recent murder-suicide of a Bangladeshi family in Texas, so I figured I would get my thoughts on paper.
I am referring to the mental health crises or epidemic that the world is going through. I am also concerned that Bangladesh is particularly ill-prepared to address this global public health issue, given how the dominant narrative in our society remains that mental health is not the same as physical health, and that people just need to cheer up/be strong/pray/have faith. I am not claiming there is no awareness of this issue, but it does seem fair to say that we are substantially behind the rest of the world.
Firstly, there is the stigma of seeking mental health services. In the rest of the world, PR material often draws parallel between physical and mental health challenges, essentially saying that just as we do not judge a person for seeking help for their physical health issues, we should not stigmatize those seeking help for their minds. The cynic in me always thinks that this approach will not help in Bangladesh, where we in fact do judge people for seeking healthcare even for physical ailments. You might think I am being overly incharitable, but if you have never met anyone who felt the need to hide the reason for their doctor appointments from work colleagues or neighbors, I am willing to bet you are in the minority. And while I do not know exactly why these people felt the need to hide, the fact that they did seems exceedingly important.
Then comes the availability of mental health professionals. From personal experience, finding good doctors in Dhaka, who will give you sufficient time to handle your situation with care and empathy, is rare even for general practitioners. Without going into details that are not mine to share, I can tell you that the situation is an order of magnitude worse for mental health practitioners, who by the very essence of their work are expected to be a lot more patient, empathetic, and able to devote time. The standard widget-churning approach one encounters in most doctor’s chambers in Dhaka seems woefully inadequate for fleshing out the deep issues someone in a mental health crisis might be going through.
Once one somehow lands an appointment with a doctor, there are still many potential pitfalls. I can only imagine what excruciating torment a person with anxiety issues must go through when trying to seek help for it in the context of Bangladesh. Not very long ago, I read about a teenager in Dhaka who ended her own life because she was no longer able to deal with the dark thoughts inside her mind. Her parents had been taking her to see a specialist, I no longer remember who. But the parents' recollections made it very clear that the healthcare professional often dismissed the mood difficulties, repeatedly saying that the girl just needed to talk to her peers and make friends. As I write these words, it once again dawns on me how singularly unhelpful such advice is. Almost as bad as going to your cardiologist and being told “well you just need to not have blocked arteries”. What is worse, the doctor in question kept pushing medication that the girl was clearly having an adverse reaction to. Why? Again, the cynic in me thinks it was sheer incompetence and lack of knowledge about the state of the art in the rest of the world. After all, few professionals in any field in Bangladesh seem to feel the need to stay up to date on their knowledge. But even in the best case, I struggle to think of any other potential reason other than that the doctor just did not care. When confronted by the parents about the latest research on the effects of the medication they were pushing, the doctor simply said they had not been aware.
I am probably going on a rant. Full disclosure, ever since moving to Canada, I have myself sought out help for mental health challenges, something I had never done while in Dhaka. All the challenges mentioned above played a role in why I felt miserable, but never tried to get help. On top of it all, I was not even sure I could afford to pay for several appointments with some big name doctor in the field. However, even in Canada, I was not able to escape all the barriers to seeking help I have tried to mention here. A few months into my regular appointments, someone told me that someone else has seen me *dramatic gasp* go to the counselling services office? I nonchalantly let them know that yes, I go there regularly, and do not see why they had to sound so conspiratorial about it. To which they replied that they care about me, and I still did not see why they had to whisper like we were planning a robbery.
In the years since then, I have continued to get help for both my physical and mental health and am in a far better place. I am glad I took those steps in 2017, because the old me was not ready for all that has happened in the world, and my personal life, in the last 12 months. And to me, at the end of the day, that is the reason why we need to greatly improve mental health services in Bangladesh. The world that is ahead of us, the world post-pandemic, will demand the best of us physically, mentally, and emotionally. I fail to see how we can thrive as a nation if we do not introspect and handle all our latent issues. To quote one of my favorite authors on productivity and meaningful work, Cal Newport, just like the middle ages had a demand for physical strength and mastery of weapons, the world ahead of us will have a demand for emotional intelligence and mental resilience. Seen that way, this is an investment in our future.
Hammad Ali is a PhD student and a lover of fountain pens