In 2021, when Zahir Jaffer brutally killed Noor Mukaddam, his violent act became a symbol of the rot that is deeply penetrated into Pakistani society. Beyond that, it also shed light on the unregulated mental health industry in Pakistan. Jaffer was a certified therapist working with Therapy Works, an organization that’s been providing diplomas since 2007 to anyone who completes their short courses.
As mental health awareness increased in Pakistan over the last half decade, it’s relied heavily on social media and the voices of young influencers to do so. This has meant a decrease in stigma around mental illnesses as therapy has become more commonly talked about. But in making mental health somewhat of a trending topic online, everyone is now a part of that conversation. This can often create misinformation that is more harmful than it is helpful. Ruhma Raza, a psychologist in Lahore, who conducts both in person and online therapy sessions, says she feels the role of social media is multifaceted.
“Mental health has become a common topic. This means everyone who has heard of the general characteristics of conditions like depression or bipolar disorder believes they know everything there is to know about it. That’s far from the truth though. Only professionals know the specific details and diagnoses. For example, many people think depression is just being very sad, but that’s definitely not it. People start diagnosing themselves or each other. This spreads misinformation,” she says.
This reliance on social media pages and an influx of therapy speak to further information about mental health can also be dangerous. An overuse of words like ‘toxic’ and ‘gaslighting,’ which are very serious terms, or casual self diagnosis such as ‘I’m so OCD,’ can lead to confusion and even harm, as people can misdiagnose themselves or others, or not know how to seek help.
“Many times people are not well-versed about a certain topic, yet choose to engage in discussions. This is especially true regarding mental health. Mental health is a very sensitive topic and should be dealt with extreme care and caution. Using incorrect terminologies or labels towards one’s own feelings and experiences can lead to serious consequences as people tend to self diagnose rather than follow a proper course of action,” says Zainab Gagai, who just graduated with her BS in Psychology.
Experts warn of the dangers of relying on any sort of information you come across on the internet, especially in this day and age, and the issue of mental health is no different. Maliha Saya, clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, points out that Pakistan does not have an ethics board to regulate the mental health industry. This makes the situation worse and puts more pressure on individuals to make their own informed decisions about who they can rely on. Saya, who regularly speaks out against organisations and individuals who claim diplomas are enough to be a practicing therapist, says social media can also help you by being the first step in verifying your therapist’s credentials.
“Do your research well. Don’t believe everything you read online. Social media is fake, and with the way information is shared and curated, it can make you feel like it’s relatable, but you need to understand, you, as an individual, are going through a specific situation. That’s not going to be fully encompassed in a post. Instead, reach out to an expert, and remember there’s no shame in asking for help,” Saya adds.
Anmol is a freelance journalist and writer whose work focuses on global gender justice, human rights and diversity.