When I decided to pursue a career in psychology I knew I would get questioned about the choice I was making. At first, I was not looking forward to answering those questions, but now with my undergraduate degree almost completed and some work experience under my belt I am thankful for the people who voiced their concerns rather than remaining silent.
Psychology is considered a “soft science” and mental illnesses aren’t considered “real” illnesses. So questions like “aap pagal logon ki doctor banein gi?” from my driver and “har admi ki ghar ki problem sunna kiss tarha ki dactari hai?” from my grandmother immediately caused me to assume the role of an educator rather than defend the validity of the job of a psychologist. I found that once people understood the similarities between physical and mental illnesses they did not question the authenticity of mental illnesses but accepted them as illnesses that required treatment.
It was not easy to explain to these individuals why mental illnesses are “real” illnesses because they did not have any previous knowledge about the functionality of the brain. However, it was not impossible. Although they could not understand the workings of neurotransmitters and synapses, they did not understand how dangerous a chemical imbalance in the brain could be. They were completely surprised that mental illnesses could in fact have a scientific basis. The question of how can talking (therapy) “fix” these illnesses was still unanswered. This is when I explained to them how our environment plays a major factor in our health. I explained that if someone lives in an emotionally unhealthy environment their emotional health could be damaged just as someone’s lungs could be damaged from living in a polluted environment. These facts seem quite basic for someone who has received formal education but since education about mental illnesses has never been a part of a basic curriculum people seem to neglect the idea of these illnesses having biological as well as environmental causes. It is this lack of basic education that fuels the stigma around mental illnesses and exacerbates the stigma around the disease.
I took the time to explain these things to my grandmother and driver and it seemed to have some sort of positive effect on them. I hope to have a similar effect on other people around me as they continue to question my career choice. I realize that one conversation with me or any psychologist is not going to make people aware of the gravity of the issues that surround mental illness. However, it can make someone consider mental illness or extraneous mental stress as a possibility when they see a family member or a friend behaving in an unusual fashion. In the past few years, I can think of at least three events in my life where I felt completely overwhelmed because of mental stressors. I ended up moving past these periods through counselling from my friends and by temporarily removing myself from the stressful settings. Even though I am financially stable and do not have any major responsibilities besides doing well in my studies, I have faced periods of serious mental distress. So when I think of the common man living in Pakistan with stressors like lack security, possible financial problems and responsibilities that come with being the breadwinner of a family, I am amazed at the resilience of people, and that makes me determined to raise awareness for mental illnesses and get affected individuals the help that they deserve.