This month we rejoiced the spirit of December 16, 1971 -- the day when our struggle for independence came to an end. We celebrated all the milestones that Bangladesh has achieved in these 45 years.
Yet, for all its achievement, the Bangladeshi people seem to have failed a vast number of people in this land: The mentally ill.
We live in a society where it is common courtesy to help ill people to the best of our abilities, or at least pray and wish for their quick recovery.
No one would expect an ill person to hear the phrases “toughen up” or “just change your attitude.” One can expect the same towards the mentally ill, yet the reality is bizarrely the exact opposite.
It is as if the aforementioned courtesy poofs out of existence once we realise that somebody’s illness is not of the physical but of the mental type.
All of a sudden phrases such as “toughen up” and “change your attitude” become legitimate advice. We expect them to live their normal lives unhindered by their disorders as we think it is all “all in their head” and with sheer willpower it will all go away.
Instead of empathising with them, we start seeing them as a burden and we start distancing ourselves, socially, from them, because we perceive them as “different” and shut our eyes to their suffering, couple that with how slur and mockery towards the mentally ill are thrown around casually in our everyday conversions -- both with impunity and indifference -- and we get the perfect recipe for stigma surrounding disorders affecting millions of our citizens.
We need to ensure that the government spends more money to build logistical structures to support the mentally ill and train more psychiatrists. Most importantly, we need to see them as our equals who deserve a shot at living a happy and fulfilling life -- after all, equality is what we fought for in 1971
All of these contribute to the dehumanisation and degradation of people suffering from psychiatric conditions and the shifting of blame on the patients for their illness.
Furthermore, this has led to the mentally ill being virtually invisible even though about 16.1% of the adult population and 18.4% of children suffer from some sort of mental disorder.
Seeking health services in Bangladesh is quite a challenge, as medical health care services are virtually non-existent due to lack of psychiatrists, lack of adequate infrastructure, and lack of any awareness about psychiatric disorders.
So, it should come as no surprise that as few as 16% of the people with psychiatric conditions seek help from mental health professionals while the vast majority go to seek treatment from traditional healers and shamans.
Consequently, this has resulted in harsh living conditions for many of them in our country. In extreme cases, they are tied up to stop them from harming themselves or others.
Treating the mentally ill and providing them with proper health care services that they so desperately need is a daunting challenge. Yet, it is a moral obligation that we have towards our fellow citizens. The first step in the right direction should be to clear the stigma surrounding this issue by raising awareness about how mental illnesses should be treated as actual ailments.
We can do this by encouraging people to openly discuss their illness and the problems they face in their everyday lives on media platforms.
We need to spread brochures, put up billboards, air TV public service announcements, and create social events and functions to challenge stereotypes, to encourage them to seek help and to let them know that they are not alone.
We need to ensure that the government spends more money to build logistical structures to support the mentally ill and train more psychiatrists. Most importantly, we need to see them as our equals who deserve a shot at living a happy and fulfilling life -- after all, equality is what we fought for in 1971.
Rastin Reza is a freelance contributor.