Unravelling the Myth – Schizophrenia - by Zahaab Rahman

Witchcraft, black magic, and jinns are the explanation for many things in our Pakistani society. We tend to find these simplistic clarifications for all that escapes our comprehension. But how often are these explanations even correct? Or are they just ideas that we believe in to suit our previously held beliefs? Do we take the time to break down our thoughts and actually research them? Or are we all as a society just stuck in a rut, passing down ideas from generation to generation, blindly accepting them, and never critically thinking on our own?

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that impacts a person’s cognitive and emotional mechanisms – it is severe and often complex to understand. The usual onset of symptoms for men is during their late teens or early 20s, and for women, it is during their early 20s and 30s. The early signs of schizophrenia are social withdrawal, concentration problems, sleeping difficulties, etc. However, with the progression of time, individuals develop more severe symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations, cognitive challenges, and many others. The causes for schizophrenia are not known in exact detail but are attributed to factors like genetics, brain chemistry, and the environment. (WebMD, 2020) Yet, our society has its own list of causes that it believes perfectly align with the condition.

Pakistan has always had inconsistent and inadequate reporting as well as research on topics of mental health, which is why it is often hard to reference accurate statistics. However, according to an article in The Lancet, 1-2% of the Pakistani population is considered to have schizophrenia which translates to around 2 million people. (Hasan & Adil, 2019) Despite such a considerable number of people struggling with this condition, its stigma is baffling and often heartbreaking. People are outcasted and labelled with terms like “pagal” if they exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia. What these individuals need is treatment, care, and support rather than judgment, hatred, and bitterness.

Religion is deeply tied to many parts of our societal practices and has roots in many portions of our culture. Unfortunately, many people tend to misconstrue religion to suit their own biases – for example, people with schizophrenia are often thought to be possessed by jinns or other demons. This means that the solution would be a spiritual cleanse, right? Unfortunately, this thought process results in people approaching the wrong people for dealing with the issue at hand. People pretending to be spiritual healers and religious practitioners then step in and bring a heap of illusions with them. Sometimes patients are beaten with the purpose of hurting the “jinn” inside them; sometimes, these “healers” advise the family to take part in very questionable actions that they claim are going to bring healing to the “troubled soul.” Often, the malpractices of such persons, unfortunately, end up taking the patient’s life. In short, there are people in our society who are aware of the misconceptions that exist around schizophrenia, and hence they use that to prey on people’s miseries and scam them for money. At the end of such rituals, families are often left with hefty loans and the need to buy a space to bury the dead.

Another cause that is many a time attributed to schizophrenia is black magic or ‘evil eye.’ The belief that a calamity from beyond has struck the individual and needs to be dealt with spiritually. These ideas also lead to the same problem: people moving towards spiritual healers who have no logic and evidence to prove their claims.

Now some might argue that all of these things are very real and can most definitely exist in the physical world; that is a debate for another time. But we need to understand why this belief is a problem. When you start attributing psychological phenomenon purely to spiritual and other-worldly causes, it prevents you from seeking help in the right direction. Many people suffer at the hands of their disorder only because they never manage to find the right support for it from experienced and learned professionals. This gap is created due to the misconceptions and stigma present in our society.

What’s pertinent to understand here is that many behaviours exhibited by an individual that might make someone else believe that they are under the influence of something dark are actually symptoms of schizophrenia. Some examples are as follows: the person claims that the devil has possessed them – people with schizophrenia have delusions. The person claims that they can see things that other people cannot – people with schizophrenia struggle with hallucinations. The person sits fixated in one position for a long time – that is called Catatonia, a condition common with people with schizophrenia. The person communicates in sentences that do not make sense to others – something many people with schizophrenia do. The person keeps losing things, forgetting things, writing meaninglessly, constantly repeating physical movements – all symptoms of schizophrenia. The point being, so much of what we are so willing to rule out as supernatural or spiritual activity is just the brain acting out when struggling with a disorder. If people were to approach a trained psychologist instead of a ‘healer,’ they might have found the answer to these concerns.

I believe the real need here is for us to take a balanced approach and not get carried away by either extreme. While it is okay to entertain the possibility that this might be something that requires a religious expert or a spiritual healer, it is also essential to understand that holding that up as the only possibility causes a lot of damage to many people. And even while going for a religious expert, it is essential to do your own research and approach an authentic scholar instead of someone who is just pretending to be one and has no real credibility.

And lastly, to address the elephant in the room, we need to break down the notion that people with schizophrenia are ‘dangerous.’ The constant portrayal of them as such in the mass media and the stories of our tongues makes it a widespread misconception that is blindly accepted by many. This causes many schizophrenic individuals to be shunned as outcasts. Not only that, but these problems also lead to delayed treatment and, often, misdiagnosis of the condition. The longer you go without substantial and effective treatment, the more your condition deteriorates and your chances of recovery drop. Research has shown that an early diagnosis and support from loved ones can be significant in helping schizophrenic individuals. However, living in a Pakistani society denies you most of that. (Zafar et al., 2008)

At the core of it, it all comes down to one essential fact: we need to develop a deeper understanding of mental health disorders. We need to educate ourselves and those around us, and we need to try and have empathy for the ones who are struggling. Dealing with schizophrenia is already a hard enough situation to be in; on top of that, the individual does not need societal pressures and judgmental statements. The struggle to debunk myths and break the stigma is a constant one. It’s a process that we all need to engage and play our part in actively. It takes time and effort, but it is absolutely necessary to put those things in now. Pakistan is facing a mental health pandemic as well – it has been for decades. And we need to fight against it, starting today. The journey is difficult, but it is important to make the world accepting and inclusive for all, regardless of individual differences.

Cover credits: health.clevelandclinic

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