The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor
A visitor to the country, a student writing a paper for a sociology course, commented last week on how almost everyone he met seemed either depressed or in a state of barely suppressed anger.
The observation has relevance beyond its context as a somewhat flippant remark by a casual observer. Pakistan, according to medical studies published over the past five years in various scientific journals has seen a dramatic rise in mental illness. Today, between 30 to 50 per cent of people are clinically depressed. According to the well-respected Pakistan Association for Mental Health, based in Karachi, this figure for women is 44 per cent. In other words, almost half the country’s female population, and a very large number of men as well, is depressed.
Social adversities have been reported by most researchers to be a factor in the state of depression. For women of course, violence, abuse both emotional and physical, and domestic friction often generated by financial anxieties, all play a part. Rates of depression in Pakistani cities are higher than those in urban centres in the developed world, according to several recent studies, and there are striking regional variations.
A study conducted by North American researchers, the results of which appeared last year and which was based on a sample of 820 randomly selected people in three cities found that Lahore had the highest number of depressives (53.4 per cent), as compared to Quetta (43.9 per cent) and Karachi (35.7 per cent). Middle age, female gender and secondary school level of education were factors associated with depression. The hardiness of the people of Karachi and Quetta, compared to their Lahori counterparts, must be commended. But then perhaps bomb blasts, missile attacks or riots are not as stress-inducing as Lahore’s crazed traffic or suffocating pollution!
The findings, taken beyond scientific figures, show that almost half the country’s people are depressed. This says a great deal about the realities of life for most citizens in the country. Inflation, unemployment, lack of opportunity and immense social injustice all play a part in these lives. The fact that a study of national newspapers over the past two weeks shows at least one case of suicide almost each day underscores how depression is dealt with by people. Academic research conducted by a leading medical college in the country several years ago noted that suicide was now a public health issue in Pakistan. Since then, the rate has increased, with over 2000 such deaths reported last year. Regional newspapers carry vivid accounts of some of them. Many others, of course, are never reported.
While these statistics indicate the scale of the social and economic issues that today confront us, the degree of desperation, there is as yet no clear-cut sign of government action. The oil lifeline extended by the Saudis and the bagfuls of wheat they are expected to hand over may be an immediate requirement given the situation that has been inherited and the economic wasteland created over the past seven years as a consequence of policies aimed only at benefiting a miniscule section of society. Such benevolence alone should not be counted on for the future. What is needed is a drastic re-thinking of strategy – and a coming to terms with the fact that a share in the pie has to be given to the deprived. Otherwise, the day is not far off when the depressed will give vent to their emotions through rage and apathy will be replaced by action.
Such a scenario may sound like the material of nightmares, but there are indications it is not all that far-fetched. While the flow of wealth has remained restricted to the privileged, information has been able to move through society far more freely. People are more aware, more conscious and consequently more angry than ever before. The electronic media has played a role in this. Groups of young boys questioned on the streets say, playfully, that they intend to seize what is there’s by right from the rich. The playfulness could quickly evaporate. It in fact already has, given that a growing number of such young men, omitted from an opportunity to make something in life through legitimate means by being denied adequate access to education, have turned to crime both to express rage and to support families. In time, this trend will grow.
The same factors have fuelled the terrorist bombings. Many behind the blasts are motivated, at least in part, by hatred for a society and a system that they believe has given them nothing. As such they are quite willing to rip it apart, even if the cost of this is their lives.
Yet, in the cuckoo’s nest in which we live, these facts do not seem to filter through to leaders. Megalomania, in these quarters, seems as rampant as depression is in others. Thus, we have an offensively pompous president who insists he sees no reason to step down. The fact that he is loathed by people is, obviously, in his eyes, no reason to leave the presidency. Then we have the smarmily smiling Mr Zardari, who seems convinced that he will be able to hypnotize people into believing that his distorted constitutional package aims to safeguard judicial independence. Instead of course it sets about to ensure government will be unfettered by a judiciary which is to be made, essentially subordinate to the executive. Mian Nawaz Sharif, while donning the garb of a man for the judges and for the people, meanwhile has his own eyes on power.
According to political rumour, both Zardari and Sharif are eyeing a comfortable place within the presidency at some point in the not too distant future, and planning their strategy at present to help take them to this cherished place. People meanwhile must cope with the antics of such persons. No doubt this too is an added source of stress and depression. Lack of hope is after all devastating. Several people spoken to recently have reported tuning out the news channels on their television sets, and most seem to be enjoying a far happier life since then.
One wishes it was just as easy to tune out reality – but this of course is not possible. The figures on mental health say a great deal about the society we have constructed. Those who stand at its apex, as decision-makers and policy designers, seem able or willing to do only little to alter the existing state of affairs – and the fear that things will only worsen in the days ahead lingers everywhere, the pervading sense of despondency picked up even by short-term visitors passing through the country.
The News, 12/6/2008