When Adnan Malik was about 12 years old, it was the kind of time when the boys in school would go around giving each other wedgies. You bullied others and were bullied yourself.
One day he saw some of the boys running around and stomping on ants.
“Don’t kill the ants!” he cried. “DON’T KILL THE ANTS!”
They laughed at him. And afterwards, many of them would make fun of him by mimicking him. He became the don’t-kill-the-ants boy.
Today Adnan Malik is a household name in Pakistan and a famous actor. He starred in Cake which was named as Pakistan’s contender for the Oscars foreign-language category. Don’t-kill-the-ants boy is now using his celebrity profile to talk about something close to his heart: mental health.
“You weren’t allowed to be sensitive,” he said, referring to what the bullying over ants taught him. That lesson would be one of many more on How to be a Man in Pakistani society.
Adnan was speaking about his experiences at T2F in Karachi on Wednesday where he was invited along with another celebrity, footballer Hajra Khan, to talk about mental health. This was part of a launch for a range of initiatives for young people whose well-being was a subject close to T2F founder Sabeen Mahmud’s heart. It was held on Wednesday as it was April 24, Sabeen’s fourth death anniversary.
“The message of love continues,” said Arieb Azhar, the executive director of T2F, as he started the evening. “Sabeen Mahmud is among us today.” People like her never die. They are remembered with tears but with happiness.
The initiative that is being taken forward by Sabeen Mahmud’s family involves a group of teachers and health care professionals. That group includes Dr Faiza Mushtaq, a sociologist and assistant professor at IBA and psychologists Humair Yusuf and Nisha Tayebaly. “Sabeen cared a lot about young people,” said Dr Mushtaq. She wanted to create opportunities for them so they could find ways to talk openly about mental health and seek help.
The discussion on mental health was moderated by Sanam Maher, a journalist who has written a book The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch. She started by asking Hajra and Adnan to talk about when they first discovered or learnt about their depression.
Hajra is the captain of the Women’s National Football team and has been playing since she was 11. She is the first Pakistani who has been signed by a foreign club. When she tweeted about having clinical depression and high-functioning anxiety in January she started a big conversation among young people who have been struggling as well. She has provided inspiration to many people who reached out to her and she has debunked myths that athletes or people who are fit cannot also struggle.
Hajra spoke about how she did not want to initially accept how she felt and no one could understand what she was going through. It scared her teammates. “I didn’t want to hear chup ho jao,” she said. “I just wanted to hear someone say, take your time.”
She felt she had neglected her depression and knew something was going wrong. It took her a year to accept she needed help. “Athletes can’t be seen as weak,” she explained. The perception is that since they are physically fit they won’t ever suffer from any mental problems. The reality is that she would go to the gym and train and nobody could see what she was going through. “It is like being in a straightjacket in a soundproof room,” she said in what is probably a depiction many people with depression with agree with.
In the time before she was properly diagnosed, Hajra went through a misdiagnosis of even having a cancerous cyst in her abdomen. But when she finally got the diagnosis she realised she had been waiting to hear it.
In Adnan’s case, it took advice from two women to consider therapy that got him to start working on his well-being. He spoke of how he is not a trained actor and when he did a particular character in Sadqay Tumhare, he had to draw on his life experiences to inform his method. That opened up some challenges for him.
“The act of performance brings with it its own anxieties,” he added. Acting also has a gruelling schedule, so you aren’t always eating properly, or sleeping on time, you aren’t at home and you are constantly shooting. “In our society we are supposed to be mentally strong,” he said. “There are a lot of men who do not talk about their feelings.” He then went on to become a public figure to talk about mental health as men can struggle with it.
It is when stars like Adnan and Hajra talk about their own struggles that young people will hopefully be able to pick up the thread. As celebrities they are well-placed to talk about the pressures of success in two different fields. Adnan spoke about how in the media you are judged based on what you look like. But this is quite similar to what Hajra and other women on the team have faced. They encounter a strange stereotyping when some media people come to cover them. The cameramen, for example, can gravitate towards the football players who they deem to be “gori” or “good looking”. The other women would get ignored.
Happily though, the national conversation is changing on depression. We see how Gen Z and the Millenials are being open on social media about anxiety and mental well being. They are talking about shaming and standards of behaviour, hurtful speech and abuse. Anyone who is on Twitter or Facebook will see how young people are calling out decades of oppressive thinking and defining how they want to see society interact or how young people should be perceived.
The evening’s discussion included some helpful and sensitive ways for people to help someone with depression. Hajra used her own example to say that if you are not very social and have depression, sometimes you’ll have a friend who will repeatedly call to ask you to come out. You keep saying no. And then sometimes the friend gets confused if they should keep persisting or if they should back off because they are not being helpful. The best way to find out is to ask. I know you keep saying no when I invite or push you to come out. Do you want me to keep asking you? Hajra candidly said that in all probability you’ll find that if you ask, the person suffering from depression will say, yes please keep asking me to come out.
Sanam read out notes from members of the audience who had questions or comments or wanted to share their experience. One note was from an athlete who said they were not able to get out of bed and go to the gym. Hajra recommended that one trick was to get ready and go and just sit and wait in the gym for 15 minutes. You’ll do it one day and then the next day you’ll perhaps start thinking of doing something. The paralysis of depression is not easy to combat. Psychologist Humair endorsed this and even added that if you even manage two minutes that is progress.
Another point that was brought up was how people have rather poor responses to people who suffer from depression. Humair pointed out that parents in particular can feel a lot of anxiety when their child suffers from some mental health struggle. There can be denial, anger, guilt and many of their own reactions. In such cases, something that might help is reframing how you communicate. “I feel…” and “I need…” are two ways to get across two crucial points. If you feel a certain way, no one can argue with that. And if you need a parent to give you space, this is one way to communicate that.
Perhaps the most poignant point raised was by a young man in the audience towards the end. He spoke of how he was lonely. The things he wanted to talk about were difficult. And while we assume that everyone has someone to talk to, this is not always the case. There are many different kinds of loneliness. For some people it is intellectual as well. In a city like Karachi, said Sanam in response, frankly it is very difficult to connect. Some cities aren’t built to foster those relationships that people need. Most of her social interaction, she said, was with people online. And while we may vilify our cell phones, they are an incredible way to also connect with people. You’ll find, she said, that if you tweet or put up a post that honestly says what you are going through or thinking, you’ll inevitably find people who will respond because they are going through the same thing. Support can come from places you did not expect. And perhaps that is a start to keep the conversation going.
For announcements on the mental health initiatives keep checking the T2F Facebook page.