Stop ridiculing the mentally ill

Published: August 3, 2014

The mentally ill of our society are marginalised and often fall victim to the society’s hostile attitude and religious extremism. PHOTO: AFP

Individuals with mental health disorders are often the victims of violence and there is wide-spread discrimination directed towards them, whether by intent, ignorance or insensitivity. They are often the victim of jokes or are ridiculed for their behaviour. This attitude can make life difficult for them and present major obstacles to recovery. It is hard for them to find stable employment, living arrangements and relationships because of diminished self-esteem and weak social support.

I came across two instances recently of major discrimination against people with mental health disabilities in Pakistan. In the first instance, a TV host, on a recent Ramazan transmission program, presented the stereotype of a mentally ill patient and then beat him physically. He asked someone from the audience to act like an insane person and encouraged him to rip apart his shirt to make the act look more realistic. He then had the guy throw himself on the floor, at which point the host began punching and kicking him and chocked his neck with both hands. With an obnoxious smile on his face, he started yelling,

“Mentally ill are beaten physically.”

To this, the crowd started cheering for the much-admired host. It was one of the most disturbing sights I have ever witnessed on a television show as the anchor was cultivating hate and prejudice against the mentally ill and promoting physical violence against them.

In a separate event in Haripur, only 70 kilometres away from the capital, a so-called spiritual healer had chained people with substance addiction at his treatment centre and had been physically and mentally abusing them for years. Family members had left relatives with addiction problems at his asylum where they were handcuffed and put in shackles without any medical or psychological help. Revealing his treatment regime, the self-proclaimed healer stated,

“I recite the Holy Quran, then blow on water and give this water for drinking three times a day.”

The century old ‘cold turkey’ treatment has not had much value in treating addiction in current day psychiatric practice. It can be extremely dangerous and people with alcohol and sleeping pill addiction might die if withdrawal symptoms from drugs are not treated carefully in a medical setting. The image of chained addicts, sitting on a dirty floor in this so called rehabilitation centre was heart-wrenching. Personal stories about their treatment are very disturbing.

One patient stated that he lost his vision to the infection as he did not have any access to medical treatment while many others complained that they were treated as animals.

Incidents like these draw significant negative attention to mental health issues and hinder the treatment and recovery of those who are suffering from these illnesses. As a psychiatrist and mental health advocate, I am very disturbed by the biased coverage and inhumane treatment of people with mental health issues.  They are marginalised and often fall victim to the society’s hostile attitude, the scarcity of mental health institutions, lack of education, poverty and religious extremism. In addition, the stigma of mental illness in a society can bring shame to the patient’s family.

There is a dire need to raise awareness of the rights of the mentally ill and help them obtain appropriate treatment for their illness so that they can contribute positively to society. The most immediate need is to educate the public about mental health issues so that the affected people can seek help without any fear and with an expectation the burden of their disease will be lifted. I challenge the viewers of such programs to demand accurate information and become advocates for a healthier society.

Hassan Majeed (MD)

Hassan Majeed MD

The author is working as a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, NY. He is a marathon runner and his interests include art, culture, travel, gender, human rights, mental health, and education. He tweets @HassanMajeedMD (

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