We need to remove the stigma surrounding mental health
When asking my fellow countrymen of a word they would associate with mental health institutes, they would most likely say “fear.” This fear makes people too scared to set foot into a mental hospital, let alone seek such services.
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to shadow mental health professionals at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMN), a public hospital in Bangladesh, and work at a school called Society for Welfare for Autistic Children (SWAC).
Even though these institutes provide facilities such as psychotherapy, counselling services, and preparatory classes for children with disability, and are fighting to destigmatize mental health problems, only 10% of people with mental health issues in the country actually seek proper medical care.
While a lot of patients seek help from traditional spiritual healers who claim these diseases are caused by supernatural entities, most cases don’t receive any sort of help or recognition. This is largely due to the fact that we as a society do not view mental health problems as important.
When someone breaks their leg or cuts their arm, they are excused from work and school and people usually sympathize with their ailment, however, when someone is suffering from depression and cannot get out of bed for a week, they get no such compensation. Instead, people make judgments about their characters.
It does not matter if we are in the city or in the village, in Bangladesh, depression means you are not strong enough, you do not get out of bed because you are lazy. Parents further blame drugs as a reason for their children’s odd behaviour, but what they forget is that substance use itself is a mental health disorder, and has very little to do with a person’s moral character.
Disorders such as dyslexia and autism are confused with children being insolent, not trying hard enough, or not studying enough. Children are then burdened with five teachers a day, coaching classes, and beatings when they don’t perform well.
The worst cases are when schizophrenia and bipolar patients are treated for supernatural causes such as “ghosts” or “jinns,” and are subjected to torture by spiritual healers. Healing methods can range from hitting the patient with an enchanted broomstick to hanging a person upside down.
In reality, these healing practices are only successful as shocking and subduing the patient to silence. Due to this trauma, the subdued patients go silent, so people aren’t as afraid of them anymore, and believe that they are healed which is why these practices are still very common in all parts of Bangladesh.
In a city like Dhaka, it isn’t that we are not aware of mental health disorders, it is that we are scared to be different, scared to be labelled “pagol” by our peers.
In a South Asian society where everyone knows everyone’s business, it is important to understand that it is always better to be called crazy by society than suffer from a mental illness your entire life.
Having a mental health disorder does not mean that someone’s life is over, and they won’t be successful in life. Many actors and sportsmen are talking about their battle with anxiety and depression -- even Albert Einstein was dyslexic.
In my time at the school SWAC, I met countless of children who have been in the school for 10 years and have such amazing artistic talent, while I, a “normal” girl, cannot draw beyond a stick figure. These children are kind, capable, and funny and they no longer require constant supervision.
This was only possible because 10 years ago the parents of these children were not afraid of what the society would think about their children being put in a special school, they embraced their children’s differences with open arms.
We as a society need to open ourselves to not only silently accepting mental health problems but openly talking about them. Stigma comes from the fear of the unknown, fear of what people would say, but if we discuss this issue in public there is no reason for the fear.
If there are 50 articles on how to miraculously beat diabetes, there has to be space to talk about mental health.
Atri Anisha Hassan is a student of Clark University.