Taha Sabri started developing cycles of dysthymia and hyperactivity when he was in his A-levels. These episodes of feeling depressed at one moment and extremely active the next got worse when he joined university. As a result of this, he failed to sit for his MBBS exams in his second year. In his third year he finally broke down and was admitted to a psych ward where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“One of the key things which define a person with bipolar disorder is increased awareness and sensitivity to what is happening around you. I experienced certain breakdowns of relationships, existential and philosophical conundrums which also added to my illness,” Sabri explains.
Sabri had darker moments before he decided to do something to address his ailment and the stigma surrounding mental health.
"I even contemplated suicide because I thought it to be a biological disease… but then I decided to convert my suffering into something beneficial for the world. As a result, I embarked on a journey of mental health awareness.”
This came in the form of Taskeen.org, a mental health initiative devoted to providing adequate access to mental healthcare, and aiming to remove the stigma associated with its patients.
Being part of the initiative gave Sabri, “a lot of courage,” and helped him beat the self-stigma.
“Once you overcome the self-stigma, social stigma is much easier to overcome,” Sabri tells Dawn.
According to another founding member, Ibadullah Shaikh, Taskeen aims “to begin the conversation, and provide knowledge to areas and people we are unable to reach in person”.
He went on to explain that, “there are many cities and districts in Pakistan where there is little to no access to mental health services. This website provides access to people in those areas. It offers a plethora of self-care tips and tools to help manage stress and anxiety.”
The nature of Taskeen is such that patients can directly and privately interact with its facilities without having to face the social stigma attached to mental health disorders.
“Members of our core committee handle the day-to-day updates of the website and we have a panel of mental health experts (psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists) who share time to respond to specific queries that come in through the forum,” Shaikh adds.
The founders and core members of the team understand how difficult it is to talk about mental health in our society. The media also contributes to perpetuate these stereotypes, maintains Beenish Nafees, who is a psychologist and another founding member of the online portal.
“Our TV programs portray a violent picture of mental illness when actually there is very little risk of violence among people with mental issues,” she says.
The website also hopes to provide a counter narrative through informed opinions and by detailing stories of survivors.
Sarmad’s is one such success story featured on the website.
“No one ever tried to ask why I use to skip my meals and cry for hours because they thought it to be childish behaviour and, of course, there is a stigma about men crying in Pakistan which automatically made me less important and weak,” Sarmad says in a video interview.
He was “drowning” in depression, and his studies were compromised.
However, today is a different story for Sarmad who has prevailed through a combination of professional counselling, motherly love and his faith. He now advises people to be “comfortable to share anything” and to not “stigmatise your own feelings and find somebody who can listen to you without judgement”.
Read: A silent epidemic
From survivors’ stories to limitless knowledge, Taskeen.org has a lot to offer. With a wide range of sections, it gives a comprehensive picture of mental health and how to seek help.
Although Ibadullah Shaikh made it clear that the website cannot replace in-person or one-on-one therapy, it can help to indicate early detection of illnesses and provide considerable information and support.
“Our vision for the next two years is to train ourselves and build a team equipped with knowledge, passion and ability, and by the grace of powers greater than us we aim to launch a mobile app, and scalable wellness centres across the country,” Shaikh adds.
Header: An 'Emotional health and wellness' session by Taskeen.org at the Justuju School. —Bilal Danish/Taskeen.org