Depression is not an ‘abnormality’

Published: August 16, 2014

Through his death in an apparent suicide caused by depression, Robin Williams influenced me again. PHOTO: REUTERS

Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society changed my life forever. Before the movie, I had no idea what I wanted do with my life. Some days I wanted to be a doctor, on others I’d aspire for whichever career was my elder sister’s favourite at the time. But as the credits rolled in at the end of the film; I knew I wanted to be ‘Mr Keating’ and connect with people the way Williams’ character had.

I wanted to teach and perhaps be able to influence my students’ lives the way Williams had done in the movie. Without realising it, across oceans and continents, Robin Williams influenced the entire trajectory of my life.

This week, through his death in an apparent suicide caused by depression, the man, not the character, influenced me again. I have suffered from depression as well. And as an educator, I had witnessed many of my students struggle with the condition. Williams’ death, though geographically and culturally far away from the world my students and I inhabit in, made me question the silence surrounding mental health issues in Pakistan.

My personal relationship with depression began as my marriage broke down in 2009. I was in a new country without friends or family, struggling to figure out whether my concerns were genuine or merely an inability of a ‘spoilt brat’ to deal with a new situation. The people around me at that time believed the latter, and despite being an educated woman with four years of academic study in Psychology, I doubted my own self.

I saw each and every sign; lack of appetite, excessive sleep and a general disinterest in life. I, who was proud of being a self-aware individual, noticed it all and blamed it on myself. It took a legal separation, a move back to Pakistan, loudly voiced concerns from my friends and family, coupled with therapy, to convince me that I had a genuine problem.

My mother still remembers me asking her anxiously if I was ‘pagal (mad) like they said’ or not. It took me three hard years to work through my issues. Despite my education and exposure, it took me three years to forgive myself and reject the stereotypical attitude I held towards my own illness. I was fortunate to have a strong and educated family that got me the right kind of help at the right time and helped me believe that I wasn’t being a quitter, that there genuinely was a problem that I had to face.

Yet, I was also aware that this was something better left unsaid. My ex-husband had already labelled me ‘mad’; placing the blame of my marriage’s demise squarely on my ‘abnormality’. We hid my counselling partly out of fear of proving him right and partly because we were aware that our society was not ready to accept mental health issues as valid diseases. I still remember arguing with my brother when I refused therapy. He would get angry at my narrow-mindedness and keep convincing me to seek help.

“Apa, if you broke your leg or had a heart problem, would going to a qualified professional for help be considered a weakness or madness? Just because you can’t see a physical manifestation of your depression doesn’t mean it’s not equally valid.”

I was known to be an open-minded and accepting individual when it came to my students, but now I found myself unable to come to terms with my own problems. I saw my depression as a weakness; an abomination. I felt like I was making excuses and that my feelings were invalid.

The attitudes of my extended social and professional circle didn’t help. Whenever I tried discussing the issue outside my immediate circle, my statements would be met with surprise and rejection. I would be told that such things were just an excuse and one just needed to:

“Suck it up and power through.”

Most people wouldn’t even believe me, because to them I seemed like a chirpy, happy and ‘normal’ person. Little did they know that the chirpiness was a facade, one that was often physically exhausting to maintain.

After my own experience, I became more receptive to similar signs in my students. Some of them seemed to be struggling with symptoms of depression. Yet, more often than not, if I mentioned it to their parents, they’d respond with denial and blatant rejection. The stigma attached to mental health came back to haunt me, this time in the shape of my students’ struggle.

But today is the first time I have had the courage to talk about my depression publicly.

As I read the reactions to Robin Williams’ death, I see a common thread running through all of them; disbelief; disbelief that a man who seemed so happy and had fame, fortune and respect, felt so alone and desperate. How could a person whose happiness infected billions across the world be so unhappy?

This is a question I was asked many times as well. While people understood that I had been in a bad marriage, my public image was of someone always happy, someone who had everything. When a few years after my divorce, I won the Fulbright Scholarship and a place at Harvard, I was often told that now I had nothing to be sad about. If I dared mention my depression or the fear that it would reoccur when I moved to Boston to pursue my degree, I was made to feel ungrateful for the opportunities I had been blessed with.

Those of us with depression are not ungrateful. Nor are we oblivious to the many other blessings that our lives contain. Yet, some event in our lives or the behaviour of those around us pushes us into a dark place. While the sun continues to shine on those around us, we walk around with a dark cloud above us. No matter how hard we try, no matter what we tell ourselves, it doesn’t go away. At such times, we need society to be supportive.

Often family and friends will try to become counsellors. While that may help in small measures, they lack the objectivity and training of a professional psychiatrist or psychologist. Not only that, but often family and friends, no matter how well-meaning, may unconsciously use derogatory terminology. If the people around you make you feel like your emotions are invalid, that everything you do is somehow wrong or your own fault, the situation can get worse.

I was an adult and yet it was difficult for me to face my issues. So I often wonder about the kinds of pressures our younger generation must be facing. The world is often quite cruel, and with the anonymity offered by cyberspace, bullying and harassing someone is easier than ever before. Zelda Williams, Robin Williams’ daughter, was forced to delete all her online profiles after receiving hate messages about her father’s death. Imagine a person, already facing a difficult situation, being further victimised at every turn. The repercussions can be extremely dangerous, if not fatal.

What worries me most is our society’s attitude towards mental health. Despite a growing awareness of physical health issues, we still treat mental health problems as a figment of the patient’s imagination. People with depression are either labelled overly-sensitive or in extreme cases, mad. Pakistani society needs to move away from this attitude. Mental health issues are as real as physical issues. Treating such individuals does not in any way mean enabling them to be ungrateful or self-piteous.

People with depression are not attention seekers, nor are they ungrateful. Nor is everyone struggling with depression crazy. Outward appearances can be deceptive. Seemingly successful individuals often hide feelings of extreme loneliness and unhappiness. Rather than trivialising their feelings, we should get them help as soon as possible. Timely interventions can work wonders. Let us try to remove the taboo associated with mental health issues and make such conversations part of our collective discourse. Let us not sweep these issues under the carpet until another suicide shocks us into re-evaluating our collective attitudes.

Zahra Saleha

Zahra Saleha

A Fulbright Scholar and an alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Currently based in Lahore and works as a Curriculum Developer and Teacher Trainer in a large private educational system.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Me

    Very informative article. More effort should be made to highlight mental health issues as they have a lot of stigma in our society and not many people are truely aware of what depression means and merely dismiss it as a feeling of temporary sadness. My sister suffers from depression and prior to that I had no knowledge of what depression was, so awareness should be made.Recommend

  • Indian

    Glad to read your happy ending…that you took treatment and saw light at the end of the tunnel.Hope,the story of your journey,enlightens others and reduces the stigma attached to depression & people begin to recognize it as a clinical problem rather than anything else.
    Best of luck with your health and all your future endeavours.Recommend

  • Asad Z

    Thank you so much for this!Recommend

  • Annaam

    Very well written Zahra – thanks for sharing your own experience! Happy to know that you got in to Harvard and are doing so well for yourself – Keep it up larki :)Recommend

  • Aswa Hassan

    Mental illnesses especially depression is one big issue that needs to be addressed in a society like ours where there is zero acceptance towards understanding the existence of such problems, let alone treating them. It’s plain sad how very positive and happy people seep into depression and don’t snap out of it, only because the right kind of treatment isn’t provided to them all due to lack of awareness and negligence towards these issues.Recommend

  • Qazi Fazli Azeem

    Many of my classmates (from the US, Taiwan and other countries) struggled with depression while I was studying in the US. I know many students and professionals that struggled and lost, with depression and bipolar disorder. As an art, design and education profession, I have met many talented/intense/gifted students in my teaching experiences who had challenges and fought with depression…. i learnt about it only later, when it was too late or their behavior deteriorated. Awareness leads to support and acceptance. People with depression have support all around them and it is only in recent times (due to education) that self-advocates and writers have talked about in our part of the world. The article is well written, highly relevant and should be discussed by teachers (at all levels of education) in Pakistan and developing countries.Recommend

  • Iftikhar Ali


  • Haleema

    Very informative and well written …one thing I felt missing was the cure.Do therapy,exercise,meditation helps????Recommend

  • Zainab Iris Rose

    I am a 17 year old girl, currently pursuing my high school diploma.
    I am very ecstatic and all the while grateful to you for raising your concern and voice over this grave issue! I am pursuing Psychology along with other subjects right now, and also wish to become a psychologist in the near future, InshaALLAH. I really look upto you and wow, am impressed by your ability to come out of darkness into a new light and for getting admitted to Harvard inspite of your depression. Depression is, fortunately, treatable worldwide; but unfortunately, it kills me, too, to bear such a stereotypical outlook and defamatory views thrown upon mental patients or even mental health practitioners in Pakistani society.
    When I chose Psychology as a subject, all I could hear was downright mockery at me from my nearest kith and kin and haters; they not only dubbed me as “mad”, “weird”, “abnormal”, “psycho” – but also my mother, who is currently suffering from depression since the last 5 years and is under a qualified psychiatrist’s treatment who gives her sleeping pills and anti-depressants, as she also is INSOMNIAC. I really feel for her, I keep on supporting her through her blues. Even I feel mild depression, and due to that I flunked in all subjects the last time, despite being a high achieving, A* student in my past academic records. I believe, if I become a qualified psychologist InshaALLAH one day, along with my other career aspirations, I’ll be more competent to make whole-hearted endeavours for humanity and Pakistan, specifically. We REALLY need to get MATURE. By “MATURE” I denote to being “resilient”, “tolerant” and to discard our practices of narrow minded mindsets. Thank you for the article, and stay blessed. I really am glad to devour it. :) Keep penning down more. :) Regards.Recommend

  • Zainab Iris Rose

    Yes, there’s a difference between feeling normally sad and feeling extra sad. Too many people even baffle up the terms “stress” and “depression”. Stress is temporary and a normal part of life; as without sadness one cannot encounter bliss. :) But depression is more chronic and may last for many years, but is, fortunately curable. My mum had depression for 4 years, but got under a great psychiatrist’s supervision in the 2nd year of her terminal illness. I still say ALHAMDOLILAH, for without his efforts – she couldn’t get well after 4 years! But fretfully, she RELAPSED back into depression after 1 year of being absolutely normal. :( So, she’s again in depression now and doesn’t do anything, just lies on the bed, and everything seems impossible to her, dull to her and negative and deathly. She has lost interest in all of her hobbies, etc. Plenty more symptoms, but just highlighting a few to convince that it REALLY needs professional help and kith and kin support and concern. Consequently, you can say this is her 5th year of depression (adding up the previous 4 years of depression). I really miss that one year “2013” when she was in the pink of her health all year.Recommend

  • beenish

    Very much similar to the situation many of us, including me, are in….so i can easily relate to all this. In Pakistan, depression is just a term to be associated with ppl who are sensitive. I believe,more effort is needed to understand such issues in a manner that has never beenexplored before. The best part is that u made your way through this tumultuous phase of life. Very inspiring indeed.Recommend

  • Reader

    Nice article. By the way hyperlink to Fulbright scholarship is opening in some other blog that is least related to what’s Fulbright. Correction needed rather.Recommend

  • Aphtab

    Simple articulation of a complex issue. Made great reading. Recommend

  • Victoria

    Depression is not an abnormality and it can affect anyone no matter, race,sex,age,religion, financial status. We all need to be educated on the matter. Also, learning what your temperament is can help you in controlling situations to prevent depression. Sometimes it’s just a matter of learning what your breaking point is. I am a Melancholy and I have tried to committ suicide in the past. If I knew then what I know now I would have never gotten to that point. Check out my blog
    RIP Robin WilliamsRecommend

  • arooj

    Thought provoking and an eye opener.
    You are MA a great person and I am proud of you my friend:)Recommend

  • Iftekhar Khokhar

    Well articulated article base on your personal experiences–a lesson to be learnt from. In our society, mental illness is attributed to mainly “the bad spirits” and the likes. People resort to so-called witchdoctors for “treatment”, who are mostly fraudulent thereby making the disease more aggravating through physical punishment & torture — it is a regular practice here!!! More & more patients of depression are surfacing in our society but no positive solution to this grave issue seems imminent. However, we may achieve complete wipe out through education & knowledge. I salute you Zahra Saleha, you are brave & courageous indeed.Recommend

  • sajal

    Wonderful article. Unfortunately, in our society there is stigma associated with ‘depression’ and such people are seen as ‘mad/pagal’. What saddens me the most is the attitude of ignorant extended family members like cousins, aunts who use derrogatory terms for such people and look down upon them and bring the depressed people down by hurling hurtful sentences for them. Little do they realise that depression can happen to anyone at any stage of life, and if they were to be depressed at some stage in their lives, wouldnt they want emotional, psychological, social support from their near and dear ones to get out of the ailment? Awareness needs to be spread big time!Recommend

  • Litt

    Very well written!Recommend

  • Babar Khan

    Thank you for sharing. Depression needs to be addressed immediately.Recommend

  • r.z.

    An article straight from the heart. Thank you for highlighting the socio-cultural taboos surrounding mental health issues in Pakistan. I hope more awareness is raised into this condition and the fact that it can affect anybody anywhere. I think the statistic is 1 in 5? How much people suffer, really also depends on our attitude. From my observation, I have also seen a lot of antenatal/post natal depression issues in young/new mothers in Pakistan. Sadly, there is no support or education for women and health workers to identify women at risk, and many struggle and suffer in silence, and do not seek help whatsoever. I really feel for this. I, like you also observed students displaying depressive symptoms, which was also dismissed by parents who are driven by the need to “keep up with the Joneses (Khans)” as normal, adolescent behaviour, something a little more study wouldn’t fix, so to speak. Keep up the effort in drawing awareness to this issue. Would also love to see you pioneer some workshops for other educators in how to support students going through depression and anxiety, so at least students know that they are not alone in their struggle. All the best.Recommend

  • arooj

    nice sharing and truly highlight the taboo regarding seeking mental health professional in our society. We, as professionals , mental health practioners, first need to convince client for the therapy..and its effectiveness. Than, we continue with the therapy if follow up is maintained.Recommend

  • Brdow

    Well written and eye opening!Recommend