The tragedy in Peshawar shook a desensitized nation to its core. It made people, not only in Pakistan but around the world, recoil and reconsider the extent of human depravity. But how did those at the epicenter of the attack deal with the aftershocks? Perhaps nobody but them can understand. Countless articles, since then, have been published quoting warnings given by psychiatrists about the impending mental health deterioration. Along with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, a rise in ‘school-phobia’ was predicted. As the country began mourning in collective grief, time passed by. It tended to bring with it a certain kind of forgetfulness within those of us who grieved out of a sense of compassion and duty since we did not have a personal association with those involved in the tragedy. Slowly statistics came in that turned psychiatrists’ warnings into reality. Children in Peshawar are traumatized and families are suffering from an acute clinical depression that those of us who are far away cannot comprehend. Families are hesitant to send their children to schools and children are reluctant to go. Attempts were made by a few hospitals which set up psychiatric rehabilitation centers and programs that focused on children but not on the scale required. The general belief, that mental disease can be treated by ignoring the problem rather than seeking proper psychological treatment, has pervaded our society at a dangerously deep level. Instead of seeking the oh-so stigmatized ‘help’ and practicing a surprisingly revolutionary concept like ‘emotional first-aid,’ we, stagnant and still, white-knuckle our way through the torture.
But a tragedy brought about by excessive brutality was bound to have far-reaching effects. A few months after the incident, I got a worried phone-call about my eight year old cousin who, after being exposed to footage of the incident, had begun throwing tantrums and exhibiting violent tendencies. He couldn’t sleep properly and refused to go to school. What was even more troubling was how his mother was reluctant to take him to the psychiatrist. Her attitude reinforced the fact that, in our society, a very outdated notion persists where going to the psychiatrist is perceived as buying a one-way ticket to a mental asylum where heavily sedated patients saunter around in straitjackets. Her reluctance thankfully did not take precedence over her child’s mental health and she did end up taking her son to the psychiatrist. Seeking ‘help’ actually helped. The stigma that surrounds seeking treatment for mental health is unwarranted. However there is a severe lack of patient-oriented centers that humanize the experience of getting treated for mental health issues. Perhaps better centers and practices can remove this stigma. Distributing focus from medication to patient empowerment, improving independence and mobility through dialogue and compassionate listening are just a few of the changes needed. The priority for change should be the epicenter; Peshawar, a bleeding city that is yet to receive first-aid.