We need to talk about mental illness
Mental illness is not a new phenomenon.
Despite its rising numbers worldwide, it has been around for as long as human suffering has been around.
It’s necessary to reiterate this fact because, for many of us, the argument is that the generations before ours or our parents have had too many real world issues -- issues of making ends meet and basic survival of themselves and their families -- to even give thought to how their minds had been treating them.
But that argument falls apart when we delve into the contours of their day-to-day lives.
We’ve all heard the phrase “mon chhot-phhot korchhe” by elders around us countless of times, where they off-handedly point to no particular cause of their sudden bout of heart palpitations. It is a tiny example of the anxiety that comes with their “real world issues,” but an example that makes it a bit clearer that disorders of the mind are nothing new.
According to WHO, depression is currently the leading cause of disability, with over 300 million people affected by it. And yet, even with more conversations about mental illnesses taking place, the stigma and misconceptions still exist by and large. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, mental illnesses are still largely seen as disorders of the privileged West, or of the insane.
Paint it black
The apathy towards mental illness and health is mysterious.
Each one of us knows at least one person in their family or even peer group who is suffering from diabetes, and we’re perfectly okay with treating their illnesses as something real, something tangible and worth tending to.
Although we may not normally see the disease manifest outward too drastically in the forms of deformities per se, we are all aware and sensitive towards their timely insulin injections or specific eating habits. We know that it’s biology that is at play at hindering their lifestyles, and we sympathize with them.
But to the ones who become anxious in social situations, or have a hard time being motivated to even get out of bed (and thus, have difficulties being productive elements in their workplace), or are dejected perhaps for no seemingly apparent reason, we are far less accepting.
We tell them it’s a rut or a funk and they just need to get out of it; it’s all in their head, etc.
What we need to realize is that as a society, we have an incredibly flawed understanding of what mental illnesses are, and being headstrong about our perception of them will only hinder us in realizing the threat it poses for those we care about, as well as ourselves.
As human beings, we have an astonishing ability to derive pleasure from even the most traumatic of experiences. Patients who have recovered from cancer, for example, often find new meanings in close relationships with family and friends, or the sunshine, or food, after coming out from their battles with death.
With depression, that part of our brain which allows us to feel pleasure -- without going into the neurological verbiage of it -- let’s say, refuses to work. This is known as anhedonia, where a person who is majorly depressed will not feel any pleasure regardless of what goes right in their lives.
According to neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, depression is the most damaging disease one can experience. He refers to depression as a “biochemical disorder with a genetic component, with early experience influences, where somebody can’t appreciate sunsets.”
It’s biochemical, because it manifests in the ways our brains process situations that surround us. It manifests in the patterns of how we eat and how we sleep -- all of it is traceable, and all of it is biology.
Taking this into account, if we don’t, for example, tell a diabetic to “take it easy” and shrug off their need for taking insulin, how can we tell a person suffering from depression or other mental illnesses that it’s all in their heads?
We need to talk about mental health
Neglecting mental health takes a toll on the individual as it does on the society as a whole. The rate of suicides in Bangladesh has gone up in the past decade; every year, the number of suicides is higher than the number of murders.
Given such statistics, it is evident that conversations about mental well-being need to start happening, and soon. We must collectively understand that it isn’t just a problem faced by those in the West alone, and our people are just as much at risk of suffering through this crippling and incredibly pervasive medical misery.
While issues of depression and mental health have been talked about in Bangladesh with approaches different from that which stigmatize patients, the conversation has only been scratching at the surface, and has been, by and large, constrained to cater to a very small minority of the upper and upper-middle classes.
People are reaching out to seek help, but only those who can afford it. For the rest of the population, coming out of the devastating situation of suffering from a mental illness is pushed to the backs of their minds, as it continues to consume their lives.
It points to a terrible unfairness in the allocation of medical resources available to the masses, and that is something which won’t rectify itself just by awareness campaigns about mental illness, nor the de-stigmatization of it.
This is where policies and funding come into play.
But for us to get to that point, we have to begin talking about mental illnesses. With the rising numbers of depressives and suicides in our region, we can’t afford to keep treating and talking about these issues in blanket terms.
Luba Khalili is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune.