Mental Healthcare in Pakistan
Mentally ill people do not get a fair deal in Pakistan mainly due to lack of adequate modern facilities. Regrettably, this subject is a taboo for most Pakistanis who shy away from discussing it openly. Such secretiveness makes the treatment of mentally deranged people all the more difficult as the victims do not come out to the open to seek redress.
Affluent patients can afford going to mental hospitals where they receive scientific treatment. On the contrary, the poor patients, already rendered incapable of any gainful employment, prove to be a burden on their families. Naturally, the caretakers’ resources are stretched to the extreme in trying to get them treated. Such patients and their families have little recourse to anything modern and effective. Other than hoping for a miracle to happen, the near and dear ones can do little to enable the hapless victims to find their feet again.
Safia Bibi, hailing from Gujranwala, is one such woman whose young able-bodied son is afflicted by this debilitating illness. She has left no stones un-turned to get her son cured, but has had little success. She is broke now. Already at the end of the tether, she has fallen back on ‘Hope’ –the last recourse for all those crushed under fate.
She has come with her son Ahmad (20) to the centuries-old Sufi shrine in rural Punjab hoping that the shrine’s healing power would rid Ahmad of the disease.
Safia has a pensive look in her face, and Ahmad stares vacantly at her. An iron chain binds his ankle to a tree, so that he can’t flee, or cause trouble to others. The mother looks searchingly at Ahmad’s face as she puts some food into his mouth. Signs of misery caused by years of battling with poverty, and her son’s doom are writ large on her face.
She bemoans her fate narrating how Ahmad used to run away from home to wander aimlessly in the alleys. Soon, he became a target of street boys who pelted stones at Ahmad for childish fun. Her eyes wells up as she lamented her fate. Grief compounded by poverty gnawed at her relentlessly.
Quite close to her lies an old man chained and made immobile. He struggles to break free, but, obviously, he can’t. He groans and grunts as his wife looks on pitifully.
Dozens of such unfortunate families have poured into the shrine. They all lie like lumps on the sprawling floor of the shrine. Each has his own story to tell, but all have their cups of woe full. The floor looks to be in a shambles with heaps of clothes and sick people all over the place.
In a society where mentally ill people are subject of much derision, the shrine offers the last haven. Some are indeed healed, some are not that fortunate. A few of such incurable patients are abandoned by their family members, who simply walk away leaving the patients to their fate.
Atta Mohammud is the custodian of the shrine. His job is to chain the patients to pin them down. He provides some frugal meal to the inmates. For his work, he wins accolades, but faces a lot of criticism for the basic living conditions there in the shrine. He takes both with equanimity, saying wryly that with his limited resources he can provide only this much.
Mental illness is not incorrigible. It can be cured by trained psychiatrists, but Pakistan has too few of them to cater to the teeming mentally ill people.
Life in the shrine is not all that dreary all the time. To cut boredom, some patients erupt to Qawwali singing and dancing. The iron chain in their ankles can’t chain their spirits. But such gaiety is illusory, at best. The shrine will continue to beckon those who need its succour.