Our society needs to accept the fact that mental health needs medical attention as much as physical health. Ensuring everyone’s access to mental health services related information can be the point of departure, write Helen Mashiyat Preoty and Tasnim Nowshin Fariha
IN THE wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, the government, prioritising the safety of students, has ordered all the educational institutions to shift their schooling from concrete buildings to virtual classrooms, which might continue till next year.
No doubt, the social distancing strategy has been useful in protecting the physical health of students. However, it appears we have been neglecting the damages such distancing can cause to one’s mental health. It is mainly because the issue of ‘mental health’ still remains culturally excluded from the meganarratives of health and well-being in our society.
The entrance to university marks a period of transition for young people when they face new challenges at both academic and personal lives. Therefore, this cohort of population is one of the susceptible groups in Bangladesh to the risk of experiencing mental health problems.
How can we forget about the new global pandemic that has almost quadrupled their sufferings? Fear of infection, financial insecurity, session jams, uncertainties about future, restricted social movement, a sense of detachment from friends, relationship problems and family violence are some of the factors contributing to their deteriorating mental health.
A study titled ‘Impact of COVID-19 on Psychology among the University Students’ was conducted among 15,543 respondents which found that 97 per cent of them were experiencing anxiety issues, mild or severe. This rate is alarmingly higher than any found in previous mental health study in Bangladesh.
An even bigger concern is that about 92.3 per cent of adults in Bangladesh with mental health problems never seek medical attention, according to the National Mental Health Survey, Bangladesh 2018–19.
They are suffering in silence
IN BANGLADESH, the stigma and prejudices associated with mental health have adverse effects on the suffering people. Many students suffer in silence while bearing social isolation and discrimination. The formation of stigma depends on multiple factors such as inadequate knowledge about mental illness, personal or family experiences with mental disorder and people’s attitude towards such matters.
‘I often thought of sharing my problems with my friends. But I could not. What if they consider me as a pagol (mad)? What if they start treating me in a different way? What if my classmates make fun of me? What if my teachers see me as unfit for joining the thesis group next year?’, said a male university student.
Existing research also exhibits that students who opened up about their mental disorders with friends often become victims of discriminatory behaviour at educational institutions.
‘I shared about my past suicidal thoughts with one of my friends and she betrayed me. She took screenshots of our chats and sent it to many in the department. Some of my seniors called me a psycho and an attention-seeker. Upon hearing this incident, one of my professors called me and advised me to concentrate on my studies instead of acting like an idiot,’ said another university student.
Discussing mental health problems with Bangladeshi parents is no less tabooed than discussing sex-related topics with them. The popular belief still remains that mental health problems do not require any medical attention and will pass with time.
‘My parents don’t pay any attention to my mental health problems. They don’t like when I try to discuss my anxiety problems with them. They think being silent on this matter is the best way to solve it. Sometimes I find their attitude so painful that I feel like ending my own life,’ said a female university student.
Mental health experts highlight that parents in society maintain silence when it comes to admitting the fact that their children too can suffer from mental health issues. Fear of shame and stigma is definitely a reason. Moreover, the parents feel that society will identify them as bad parents upon knowing even about their children’s visit to a counsellor.
Experts identify untreated mental health illness as a major public health concern that contributes to risky behaviours such as suicide among university students in extreme cases. According to a study titled ‘Suicide in Bangladesh’, people aged 20–29 years are the most vulnerable to suicide in Bangladesh.
How to break the silence
OUR society needs to accept the fact that mental health needs medical attention as much as physical health. Ensuring everyone’s access to mental health services related information can be the point of departure.
It becomes easier for one to open up about mental health problems when the people around them are sensitive and aware. Thus, mental health literacy is equally important for everyone in society.
There is no alternative to family support; especially parental support (eg emotional, informational and financial) when it comes to reaching out for professional help. Therefore, family members need to change their mindsets towards mental health issues. Parents should create a conducive environment where a youth can open up about his/her problems and get support.
As Bangladeshi families remain silent on such issues, students see their peer groups as a major source of support who themselves might not have correct information as well. Exchange of misleading information among students is a major reason behind the high prevalence of mental health related bullying in the educational institutions.
Teachers will have to take a leading role here. Although universities are closed now, they are still connected with their students through online classes. Teachers should regularly discuss the necessity of mental well-being and the consequences of untreated mental illness. Hearing it from teachers, students will find it easier to open up about their problems.
In no way a teacher should mistreat a student after knowing about his or her mental illness. In fact, they should keep track of their students’ mental health status. If any student shows negative behavioural changes, a teacher should take special care of him or her by providing every possible support.
Moreover, teachers must pay immediate attention to the issue of mental health related bullying. They should discourage bullying among students by discussing its detrimental impact on the overall well-being of the young generation.
Most importantly, university authorities should address the mental health needs of their students as well as undertake necessary interventions accordingly.
Youth leadership can also be effective in saving the young generation from drowning in mental health related stigma and isolation. First, students need to self-educate themselves and then disseminate proper information among their peer group and society. They can also keep track of the mental health status of their friends, help them with identifying health needs and support them in seeking help when needed.
Amid the suspension of in-person classes, internet can play a pivotal role in reaching out to students who are now residing at different parts of the country. Youth leaders can organise online workshops for students and invite service providers and experts to talk there. They can take necessary help from their university departments and teachers. Such initiatives will help students to establish direct contact with service providers who are in immediate need of health care.
Social media movements can be formed at the national level where students will share their stories encouraging others to speak out as well.
Students can participate in creating awareness-raising blogs and articles on online portals or in newspapers. As the young generation is quite active on social media, they can share mental health related posts with their virtual friends. However, they should be careful about the authenticity of the content as well as avoid sharing fake news or rumours.
Moreover, different types of art, music, slogan or poster competitions can be organised where students will tell their unspoken stories in different ways.
Amid the pandemic, mainstream media can play a positive role in raising mental health awareness and literacy through promoting campaigns, organising television and radio programmes or through creating attractive contents and advertisements. Fictional role models such as ‘Meena’ can be used in breaking the mental health related taboo in our society. Addressing students’ mental health needs is now more imperative than ever before.
Helen Mashiyat Preoty is an economics postgraduate from the Bangladesh University of Professionals. Tasnim Nowshin Fariha is an undergraduate student of women and gender studies at the University of Dhaka.
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