Ayesha Khalid, 20, is a student of the University of Karachi. Passionate with many hobbies, she was a happy student in her first semester studying Psychology at the university. Her semester was all fun and games, and outings and dinners with friends but soon she felt “something was wrong”.
Ayesha enjoyed writing and painting but increasingly found herself unable to do either. During her second semester’s break, she felt symptoms of debilitating depression. Her life turned upside down as she lost her productivity and spent most of her time at home unable to keep negative thoughts out of her mind.
Almost daily, she had to force herself to do even the most basic chores such as eating and taking a shower. Before things could get worse, she identified there was a problem and that she needed help.
Ayesha started therapy at the counselling centre within her department at the University of Karachi.
Dr. Farah Batool, the centre’s chairperson, said she realised there is a severe need of a counselling centre within the Psychology department, which was established in January 2018.
While the teachers provide personal counselling to students, cases of severe depression needed professional attention. These cases include exam anxiety, stress-related disorders, addiction, violent behaviours and even suicidal attempts.
The centre extends their services to students as well as referral cases and anyone who needs counselling sessions at low rates. The normal rates of psychological sessions in hospitals in Karachi are Rs 2,500-3,000 per session while the centre provides a 50 minute session for only Rs600 for students and Rs1,500 for the rest.
Many students have benefitted from the counseling centre. Sidra Zahoor, another 20-year-old, ended up with stress-related disorder after undergoing a traumatic event four years back.
Outgoing and friendly, she became a different person after the event. She would lock herself in her room for days, avoid social gatherings and started isolating herself from friends. Sidra soon realised she needed professional help but was hesitant because of the stigma attached to taking therapy and medication for mental illness.
“There were days when I was not myself anymore,” she said.
Finally, after four years of silently suffering she decided to consult the counsellors at the centre in 2018.
Dr. Farah, speaking with The Big Picture, said various causes add to mental health issues in our society. Poor relationships with parents or loved ones, lack of job opportunities and excessive use of social media are all factors contributing to mental health disorders.
While the facility is readily available on campus, students said they felt “shame” in seeking professional help. They also spoke about how their family did not always understand their struggle with mental health.
Ayesha used to jot down random thoughts in a diary under the title “Fighting Depression”, which helped her immensely when nothing else could.
One day, her brother happened to see her diary, and told her she was “stupid” to think she is suffering from something so serious. That discouraged her from sharing her feelings with her brother. Her family was not understanding either when Ayesha told them that she was going to therapy.
Sidra, however, was lucky and had a friend and sister tell her she needed to get help. Although she tried with self-help books, she said she constantly felt she would end up in a “dark place”.
That’s when she decided to think beyond the stigma and shame attached to therapy and booked an appointment at the counselling centre.
“I was still carrying the mask of bravery on my face, which is the real reason of my problems. The sessions bring me to the point where I tear off that fake mask and accept that it’s okay not to be perfect all the time. It’s okay to feel broken and be a survivor,” she says.
“Creating awareness and ending stigma is important to counter deteriorating mental health of young people,” says Dr. Farah. The centre arranges seminars and workshops from time to time at the university to address the issue.
The centre encourages their students to take part in eradicating stereotypes about depression and trauma survivors and spread awareness in society.
According to Dr. Saima, senior counsellor and teacher at the psychology department, the number of male and female students who come for counselling is equal. About 50 to 60 students visit the centre for assessment each month.
Dr. Farah encourages students to come to the centre, saying they should try to ignore discrimination and stereotypes against those who seek professional help.
“Care for yourself first. Whether you go for therapy or not, people judge you anyway. So it's better to be fair with yourself by seeking help.”