Ignoring Mental Illness is Among Pakistan’s Misplaced Priorities


Ignoring mental illness as a ground to prevent execution is among Pakistan’s misplaced health priorities.
Ignoring mental illness as a ground to prevent execution is among Pakistan’s misplaced health priorities.(Photo: iStock)

Ignoring Mental Illness is Among Pakistan’s Misplaced Priorities

On 21 October 2016, a three-member bench of the highest court in Pakistan, headed by Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, ruled that schizophrenia was not a mental illness and won’t disqualify one from being sent to the gallows. This was ostensibly done to ensure that Imdad Ali, a schizophrenic man, would be hanged for the 2001 murder of a cleric.

Imdad will be victim number 426 in Pakistan’s merciless hanging spree, that began after the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty, following the Peshawar attacks in December 2014. In the wake of these attacks, three branches of governments, spearheaded by a fourth military branch, devised a ‘National Action Plan’, the salient points being the establishment of military courts and the reinstatement of capital punishment.

Denying Rights to the Disabled and Mentally Ill

The political efficacy of such measures and their role in deterring terrorism is a topic for another time, but one thing is certain – by implementing such a draconian order, the Pakistani government, courts and military establishment have grossly violated the rights of the disabled and the mentally ill.

As human rights lawyer Saroop Ijaz describes it: in its “populist pandering”, the state has violated the United Nations disability rights treaty that Pakistan ratified in 2011. Imdad is the latest in a series of such victims. Another such example is that of Kaneezan Bibi, who was convicted for a murder in Toba Tek Singh in 1991. Despite the existence of compelling evidence to suggest that she suffers from psychosocial disabilities, President Mamnoon Hussain rejected her mercy plea – making her the ninth woman to be hanged in Pakistan’s history.

Khizar Hayat, a paranoid schizophrenic who spent three years in the prison hospital, wasn’t spared either.

Mental Illness Ignored in Pakistan

In Pakistan, conservative estimates say that 13 percent of the population is afflicted with mental health problems. Given these figures, the WHO reports that:

0nly 400 psychiatrists and five psychiatric hospitals exist across the entire country for a population exceeding 180 million. Roughly translating to an alarming psychiatrist-to-person ratio of 1 to half a million people.

Also Read: We Can No Longer Afford To Ignore India’s Mental Health Crisis

PTSD, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia are generally written off as trivial matters by most members of society in Pakistan. Patients are treated as having been “erroneously diagnosed” as Arif Mahmood at Dawn contends.

To make matters worse, some are diagnosed as being under the influence of supernatural powers or worse, black magic. They are then sent to spiritual healers and hakeems. or asked to renew their faith in god.

This discrimination, coupled with petty and blinkered social attitudes and the lack of resources and government attention, creates an environment where mental health patients are relegated to Sufi shrines or ill-equipped institutions.

Disarray in National Priorities

The psychological exploitation of young boys at the hands of innumerable Lashkars, Sippahs and Jaish-like groups is evident. But this cannot be solved by secularising the education system, as the liberals demand. Counselling services should be increased manifold before anyone can cry foul about Western media biases and play the victim card.

In November 2016, Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice Party “shut down” Islamabad, bringing hospitals, schools, offices and courts to a standstill. Mere miles away in the wee hours of the same day, Imdad Ali is unaware of his own reality. There is no better allegory for a disarray of national priorities.

(The writer is a student of Public Policy at the Wagner School at New York University. He can be reached @ChZJanjua . This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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