How We Failed Rushaan Farukh

Someone suffering from depression needs real support. Not the pep talk or pearls of wisdom you casually dish out to a friend over a cup of coffee. The kind of support someone suffering from any other serious illness, such as cancer, needs. What happens when they don’t get this support? They isolate themselves and sap their energy, which makes them resistant to assistance.

The tragic death of Rushaan Farrukh, a BNU student, has inspired widespread conversation about the state of mental health in Pakistan. The surge of online reactions have been both promising, and equal parts disappointing. There are myths and truths about mental illness that remain unknown to too many of us, which is a giant failure on the part of any society. According to the World Health Organisation, depression is said to affect 15% of the adult population worldwide. In Pakistan itself? Women are at a much higher risk of falling victim to depression than men. It is more than likely that you know, are related to, or have passed by someone with depression today alone. Collectively as a society, we need to be on the same page about victims of depression. This means becoming better educated about what it is, and what depression can look like — even more than this, we need to learn the basic skill of empathy. 

Empathy goes a long, long way, in someone’s recovery. The simple gesture of knowing they are understood and heard can make all the difference to someone that feels lost. Sensitivity needs to flood institutions and the people who govern them. Sensitivity needs to be our top priority. 

A glaring aspect of Rushaans’ story is found in her final Instagram post. A final cry for help which went unheard. She posted a picture of herself in a bright yellow sari, laughing, captioning it “hey so if I kill myself any time soon just remember me like this. just in this saree, on a spring afternoon looking so happy, too happy.” The people who read this caption failed to take it as a sign of something deeper at play, and instead, shamed her for it. Social media is meant to connect us to each other, but in a case such as this, it has done the opposite by further alienating the one sticking out her hand. Ironically, people are quick to express sorrow after a tragedy, rather than handling the signs with sensitivity when they are staring at them.

This isn’t the only time social media has reared its ugly head. The recent suicide of model Anam Tanoli was also attributed to the presence of online trolls and cyberbullying. Why people have armed themselves with hatred is a question ringing in our heads — after all, we’re sure, people don’t speak to each other the same way in person as they do online. What is it that makes the world of social media so unsafe, especially for those suffering from depression? 

We spoke to Daanika Kamal, a human rights lawyer and founder of ‘The Colour Blue,’ to get a little more perspective on the issue.

About the effects of social media, Daanika had to say, “Social media does two things: it connects us to many more people virtually but also isolates us physically. Social media has the ability to provide many with invisibility, which makes it easier for people to bully, spew hate, and incite violence towards others.” 

The alarming truth here is that people seem to relish trading in their empathy for a cold dismissiveness on the internet, and use their online personas as safety nets to be able to do this. While this is a problem in itself, it serves as an even more dangerous playground for someone suffering from mental illness — their anxiety and depression (two illnesses which often go hand in hand) have already taken a toll on their self-esteem. Online trolls only add to the party. Rather than bringing people up, we continue to tear them down, and then feign shock-horror when the results reveal themselves. 

This complete lack of empathy takes on demonic proportions when it spills over into real life. Witness accounts from BNU have surfaced stating people who saw Farrukh on the roof remarked it was a “publicity stunt,” and a form of “attention-seeking.” These were real people in a very real life or death situation, who for some reason, were entirely desensitised to the reality of death about to present itself in front of them. Moreover, they were ready with phone cameras instead of help. 

A large part of the extreme insensitivity people display when talking about mental illness comes from generations of families and institutions delegitimising it as a medical problem. Daanika explained, “mental illnesses, like physical illnesses, have detrimental impacts on your mind and body. Just because symptoms are invisible doesn’t mean that the illness doesn’t exist.” It’s not only that we tend to dismiss and mock those suffering, but how this can also shape the perceptions of the one suffering. They begin to feel a sense of shame and guilt, which inhibits them from seeking the help that could save them. 

If you have the flu, a cold, a broken ankle, you go to the doctor. Most people suffering from depression, panic attacks, or suicidal thoughts stay home, allowing them to fester. It makes one wonder — if institutions such as BNU would have been more sensitive to the realities of their large student populace requiring mental health services, would they have allocated for more counsellors, helplines, or resources? If Rushaan had access to therapy, or if we as a society had worked to destroy the taboo around seeking it, would she have felt just as hopeless on November 26th? Worst of all, what could have happened if Rushaan was provided with immediate medical services? Despite suicide being decriminalised in Pakistan earlier this year, she was allegedly denied medical services because of how she received her injuries. The issue amounts to a lack of morality. 

We as a society: everyday citizens to certified doctors; teachers, and neighbours, ignore the signs of mental illness and brush aside conversations about them. In the worst cases, we berate the ones suffering up till their last moments. We challenge our readers to strike up conversations with their families at the dinner table today and ask their friends how they’ve been feeling. The key is kindness and compassion, and most importantly, conversation. 

Daanika Kamal is a human rights lawyer and mental health advocate based in Islamabad. In 2018, she founded the Colour Blue (TCB), as part of her efforts to affirm mental health as a fundamental human right. TCB is a social enterprise working to promote and encourage the empowerment of those facing mental health challenges, through an inclusive, innovative platform for engagement, effective support mechanisms and quality service provision.

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