Mental Health and Politics

In the wake of Asia Bibi’s acquittal, we saw a nation-wide lockdown by religious extremists who publicly called for murder of supreme court judges, openly threatened state institutions, blocked major roads and intersections in various cities, and topped it off by stealing bananas. The government’s appeasement to the groups holding the state hostage by surrendering to their demands in order to ‘avoid bloodshed’, was widely deemed as a step which undermines the rule of law and Pakistan’s democratic processes.

For three days, the country was at a stand-still. Employees were told to work from home, businesses were forced to shut down, children were told to stay off the streets as parents feared for their safety, media channels were told to black-out any reports of developments, and an aura of political uncertainty embraced us. Regardless of your religious or political beliefs, such uncertainty can be challenging. When compounded by the use of political rhetoric, the transition of control, power imbalances, and the speed at which information is disseminated and processed may cause high levels of stress and anxiety. Political climates and the constant exposure to it has the ability to affect our mental health, varying in intensity depending on our race, gender, socioeconomic status and religious affiliation.

When extremism took the streets and political turmoil started to stew, members of minority communities were vulnerable to discrimination and hate crimes even more than usual; citizens were in a constant look-out for potential instances of violence to erupt in their neighbourhoods; and the veil of anonymity provided by social media gave many the confidence and validation to indulge in hostile commentary. On one end of the spectrum, we had groups and individuals engaging in frenetic wars against the establishment – and on the other, we had groups and individuals who felt they were at the edge of the abyss, attempting to strike a balance between engaging with new realities or disconnecting from the matrix entirely.

In times of political chaos, citizens often feel a combination of emotional worry, tension and irritability. Last week, some citizens reported heightened levels of anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and preoccupied with socio-political issues and not knowing what they can do at an individual level to contribute to a less hostile environment. Some felt tired and apathetic, hoping to escape what was going on around them. Others were battling with the financial stress that comes with shutting down shop, worrying about how they will meet their monthly revenue targets. Families were stranded on highways for hours; some protecting their children from witnessing firing beyond the windshield, and some praying for pregnant women to safely reach the closest hospital.

Mental health research has rarely shown interest in the political – but in recent years, it is coming to acknowledge that the current “us vs. them” zero-sum politics is intrinsically linked to the personal. Partisanship drives much of our lives; where we live, who we interact with, where our children go to school – it is not surprising that our socio-political beliefs determine who we are and how we think. Our political manifestations, and the way politics represents itself around us is an important aspect of our self-representation, and a consequential factor in determining our day-to-day difficulties. When stakes are high and outcomes are uncertain, levels of stress are easily diffused in communities. There is a background sense of dread lingering about what will happen next; sometimes coupled with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. Turbulence on the streets can very easily make its way into our homes, creating a loop between personal and political anxiety.

November started with an upheaval of political stresses. With the crackdown on INGOs making the news, development sector employees feel their job security threatened. By detaining and placing a prominent rights advocate on the exit control list, many human rights advocates feel they must silence their own voices. And the three-day standoff between the state and politico-religious groups resulting in a ‘controversial’ deal, to say the least, fueled discontent in citizens.

For some, political anxiety may be related to the current administration as being unpredictable, and for others, it stems from direct opposition to one’s own beliefs and ideals. It is catalyzed by notions of fear, insecurity and oppression, snipping at the human rights of individuals as enshrined in the Constitution. National politics is not something that happens behind closed doors in the capital. It has a direct impact on how we view ourselves, how we carry ourselves in society and how we perceive our future. Because of these intrinsic links, we cannot ignore the emotional and psychological toll that the political takes on the personal.

Published in the Daily Times on 8th November 2018.