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Pakistan reacts to terror-inflicted mental anguish
Psychological illness comes in conjunction with militant violence, and specialists are suggesting coping mechanisms.
By Adeel Saeed
PESHAWAR – Bombings, suicide attacks, targeted killings and other militant acts are taking a toll on the mental health of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) residents, psychiatrists say.
And they added that the distress has contributed to a high rate of patients with neurotic (anxiety) symptoms.
"After every bombing or act of terrorism, people – both male and female – come in large numbers to the psychiatric ward with complaints of a constant feeling of fear, anxiety, headache and sleeplessness," Associate Prof. Dr. Zahid Nazar, head of the psychiatric ward at Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) in Peshawar, said.
"It took more than one year for me and my family to recover from sleeplessness and fear after witnessing the devastation of the ... bombing at Khyber Super Market in June 2011 that claimed more than 50 precious lives," Waqar Ahmad, a government official who resides in a flat near the blast site, said.
Many across the nation are "suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the terrorist attacks are going on frequently, affecting our mental health, and people are becoming depressed, anxious and worried," Zahid added.
Terrorism is a "continual dose of fear that creates uncertainty, distrust and melancholy," Pakistani psychiatrist Dr. Khalid A. Mufti said. It gives birth to numerous psychological and mental ailments, he added.
The damage to public health is becoming a matter of "serious concern," he said.
Mufti, in conjunction with Horizon – an NGO dedicated to rendering treatment and rehabilitation to the mentally ill and drug addicts – recently conducted a survey that revealed that about 80% of South and North Waziristan residents are suffering from mental illness, while 60% of Peshawarites are showing warning signs of psychological issues. But there are no pre-militancy data to compare those figures to.
The psychological trauma not only causes mental illness and negative change in behaviour but pushes up the incidence of heart disease, abdominal problems, chest infections and other health-related problems, Mufti told Central Asia Online.
"Increased depression and anxiety lead to an increased use of tranquilisers, which has become the third most prevalent drug addiction [in KP and FATA] after heroin and charras (hashish)," he said.
"The human body has built-in endurance for every odd situation, but constant feelings of depression due to the frequent happening of untoward incidents in life damage mental health," Dr. Wajid Ali Akhunzada, a psychiatrist at Hayatabad Medical Complex, told Central Asia Online.
The impact of the decade-long militancy is clear when observing mental health and changing behaviour, he said.
Terrorism affects every segment of society, Wajid said. "The crime rate has increased, killings due to inter-family disputes are rising, [the] divorce rate is increasing, and all this results from short tempers and intolerance stemming from a constant feeling of depression and anxiety."
Treatment of patients
Naila Riaz, a psychologist at LRH, told Central Asia Online about the services the hospital offers to patients.
"We treat them through supportive counselling, medication and EMDR [eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing], a technique used for individuals who have experienced severe trauma that remains unresolved," she said.
During such treatment, therapists help patients process distressing memories, reduce the lingering effects and develop more adaptive coping mechanisms.
Suggested measures for rehabilitation
The government should focus on developing a less stressful cultural environment, Zahid suggested, referring to recreational activities like painting or floral exhibitions, street theatre and sports.
Public hospitals should enhance their treatment facilities, he said, adding that public awareness should also play a role. "A special initiative [should] be taken for promoting mental health literacy through use of media as well as through informal community networks," he said.
"Spiritual healing can become more effective than medication," Mufti said. "Religious scholars should play their role in attracting people towards religion."
He urged parents to let children play outdoors sometimes rather than confining them indoors, a tactic many parents turn to as a way to protect their children. Pakistanis should be educated about the potential illnesses they face, he said, adding that the society strongly stigmatises mental illness.
Such inhibition leads patients to self-medicate, which can cause other health problems, he warned.