Mental health in a changing worldIra Naeem, a psychologist from Pakistan, on her decade-long experience in psychotherapy, the rise of mental health issues among youths, and social media’s role in it.
Growing up in Pakistan, Ira Naeem always wondered why people reacted a certain way. The difference in her reaction and the other person’s reaction to the same thing made her delve deeper into understanding people.
In a religious country like Pakistan, where mental health issues were rather taken to spiritual healers than the doctors, Naeem wanted to help people with a more accurate way of healing than just blind faith, she said.
Naeem, who is based in the UAE, has been working as a psychotherapist for more than a decade, specialising in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
Naeem recently sat down with the Post’s Pinki Sris Rana to talk about her decade-long experience in the field, how perceptions of mental health issues have changed over the years, and the role of lifestyle changes on our mental wellbeing. Excerpts:
There’s a lot of stigma attached with mental health in South Asia. How can we change that?
Yes, there’s a lot of stigmatisation when it comes to mental health issues. But the change should start from oneself. Change begins when you explore your feelings yourself, validate it and, instead of suppressing those feelings, express it with your friends and families. On one hand, it will make you feel lighter and on the other, it will encourage your friends and families to do the same. And when someone battling with mental health issues opens up with us, we often get worried about giving the right advice. But usually, simply listening is enough.
You have been working as a psychologist for a decade. Have you felt the difference in the way mental health is perceived over the years?
When I first told my father that I wanted to be a psychologist, he was very supportive of me but he didn’t even know what psychology doctors did. Looking back at that time, we have come a long way. Back then, there were very few psychologists or psychiatrists that one could consult with. And anyone visiting them would run the risk of being called crazy. But today, the number of psychologists and psychiatrists has increased exponentially and many people routinely visit psychologists and psychiatrists. This is because of the increase in awareness regarding mental health. We are at a better stage but we haven’t yet reached the ideal stage where we can discuss mental health openly.
Does being a psychologist, which involves listening to numerous people and their problems every day, take a toll on your own mental health?
As students of psychology, we are taught to disassociate ourselves from the patient. But even while trying to disassociate, the nature of the job is physically and mentally exhausting. I sit down for nine hours daily in the same position, meeting nine different patients. When there are extreme cases of rape and sexual abuse, the helplessness you feel with the limitations of your job mentally exhausts you. The job demands a lot from you. So for my own physical and mental well-being, I practice yoga, meditation and workout.
Majority of young people seem to have mental health issues these days. Do you think the changing lifestyle is related to the increase in young people with mental health issues?
Mental health issues existed long before we started knowing about it. People from earlier generations suffered from it but didn't have the awareness. But it is true that the changing lifestyle has increased these issues, especially among young adults. Earlier, there were joint families, and sharing our feelings with someone was a lot easier. They had the social support. These days, we have nuclear families busy with their own work, and we have less time even for ourselves. And with the increasing use of social media, we compare ourselves a lot with others’ lives, expecting a lot more from life and hence leading to more disappointment.
You also have expertise in self-care psychology. What are some of the ways that today’s youths can practice the art of self-care?
Eat good, sleep good, and exercise. I know this is something everyone recommends, but there’s no other effective way to care for yourselves than following these three fundamentals. Make sure you eat good, healthy food, get eight hours of sleep daily, and exercise. When you exercise, your brain secretes serotonin and dopamine, often known as the ‘happy hormones’ that help you fight negative feelings. Ninety-eight percent of your mental problems can be solved with exercise. That being said, focus on what makes you feel good. Do the things that nourish your soul. And the rest will be well.