One in eight people around the globe lives with mental health conditions. World Mental Health Day is a global day of education, advocacy, and de-stigmatization of mental illness. According to the World Health Organization, this year’s World Mental Health Day offers a chance to reaffirm efforts aimed at improving mental health as this year’s theme is: “Make mental health for all a global priority”. In this interview post, Sujjawal Ahmad joins in the conversation with Umair Umed Ali Bachlani, a Health Policy and Management student at Aga Khan University, Pakistan, as he shares what sparked his interest to become a young mental health awareness ambassador in his country.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
Hello! My name is Umair Bachlani and I am from Karachi, Pakistan. Professionally speaking, I have a background in Nursing. I completed my graduation in 2016 from the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Aga Khan University (AKU-SONAM) and my real journey as a Registered Nurse started after that, which I would call the most compassionate part of my life with rotations in multiple areas including MedSurg Ward, Dialysis Unit, and last but not least, COVID-ICU. Currently, I am enrolled in a Master’s in Health Policy and Management at AKU and I am also teaching as a Clinical Preceptor at AKU-SONAM.
With a background in Nursing, what sparked your interest in mental health?
In my view, mental health is equally important as physical health. But since we don’t see its upper layer, it keeps growing unnoticed. So, Mental Health has always been my area of interest since my student life, when I used to organise various activities and educational sessions related to Mental Health Day. But it was only the time when the pandemic wreaked across the globe that I started to think of pursuing my career in this area. I was working in the COVID-ICU and came across many healthcare professionals as well as patients and their families struggling through fear and uncertainty. Due to the lockdowns, quarantine and isolation patients could not meet with their loved ones to reduce the risk of transmission. It was indeed a difficult time. But on the brighter side, we the healthcare professionals were very much supported by society at large.
Meanwhile, I got the chance to get myself connected to local and global mental health organizations for advocacy in protecting mental health problems during the pandemic. I was also involved in the global Speak Your Mind Campaign.
What is your area of research?
My research area is mental health in adolescents as well as school-going children. I conducted my first study on the prevalence of drug use among university students. We also recommended that universities should provide literacy to their students regarding healthy coping mechanisms, substance use disorders, and well-being.
When COVID-19 reached Pakistan, there was a lot of stress among the population, especially patients and their healthcare providers. So we started to research and explore their fear and stigma towards COVID-19 so that healthcare institutes should protect against mental health problems among patients and healthcare workers with the best knowledge and practices.
My own Masters’ thesis is on exploring stakeholder perspectives about school-based mental health programs in schools and colleges. This study will benefit and support future school-based mental health programs and policies to combat misinformation, stigma, and taboo on mental health. On the flip side, it will raise awareness, literacy, and knowledge regarding mental health and well-being among youth.
What disorders do you have a particular interest in?
Disorders exist in an individual’s environment and genes, and they worsen if not treated at the right time. In the context of Pakistan, what comes first to my mind is that substance use disorder and suicide is the most common issue among adolescents and youth, both of which are preventable and associated with an effective recovery and rehabilitation plan.
My interest is more towards the primary prevention of disorder or disease, and building resilience, and in particular, my focus is on the vulnerable and underserved population in the spectrum of mental illness. And I believe providing education to adolescents and youth regarding mental health is an effective strategy. The outcome will be minimizing the exposure of risk factors such as distress and promoting protecting factors such as health behaviour and environment.
What sparked your interest in mental health awareness?
I had lost my childhood friend who died by suicide; nobody knew what the stresses were in his life. Might be he was not able to share with anyone. Stigma, taboos, and misinformation are the barriers to help-seeking behaviours. It can only be resolved by gaining knowledge and providing literacy to the people. It’s equally important as physical health. According to a recent report, every one in four people worldwide are affected by mental or neurological disorders once in their life course.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) prevalence of any mental illness among young adults aged 18-25 years had the highest prevalence compared with the other age groups. WHO World Mental Health (WMH) surveys reveal that the first symptoms of mental disorders usually occur in childhood or adolescence, although treatment typically does not occur until several years later. It can be overcome by providing literacy, eliminating stigma, and increasing help-seeking behaviours among adolescents and youth.
How do you think we can remove the stigma associated with seeking mental health help in the context of Pakistan?
Mental health has been neglected for decades; one positive takeaway of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it allowed us to discuss stress and mental health problems with greater ease.
There is no health without mental health and as I said earlier that we can improve mental health through help-seeking behaviour by providing mental health literacy in educational or religious institutes among adolescents. Research has shown that providing mental health literacy in school has positive outcomes, i.e., increased mental health knowledge, a positive, healthy mental attitude, and best practices to maintain good mental health. Mental health literacy should not only focus on adolescents and youth but their parents, teachers and other stakeholders to understand their distress. Moreover, minimizing the stigma associated with mental health increases help-seeking behaviour. They will be able to learn positive, healthy coping mechanisms.
One piece of advice you would like to give to the youth.
My advice to youth is that mental health is a major dimension of health and well-being. Start conversations regarding the mental health of people in their natural settings. How your feelings are today? It’s okay not to be okay sometimes. Acknowledge what you already have and express gratitude. Mental health doesn’t include the disorder or disease only, but knowing yourself, your thoughts, feelings and actions. Burst stigma through scientific facts. Make the habits of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga to regulate your emotional status and self-awareness.