By Azmat Haroon
Many of us associate mothers with an archetypal female that only finds satisfaction in taking care of others. They neglect their own needs by placing the needs of others before them — the ever forgiving, devoted individuals who are ready to sacrifice it all for the sake of their family and children. The idea of a perfect mother is entrenched deep in our minds, and this ideal is just one of the many factors that shape our relationship with mothers as much as it shapes the way women view themselves and build their own relationships.
Even when a mother is struggling with a mental issue, her instinct is to ignore the problem and carry on as usual — often by putting up a facade, because her mental and physical well-being is at the core of a functioning household. Panic and disorder ensues in a home where mothers fall sick, with the husbands and children struggling with what to eat and random pieces of clothes suddenly disappearing before our eyes.
There are some women who learn to cope with these issues with the help of a strong support system, but then there are also those who begin experiencing mood swings. In this case, behavioural pattern of mothers change as they start to appear sad, difficult to please and begin complaining about random pains and aches. These are the early telltale signs of a mental health issue that can range from stress, depression or a bipolar disorder among a more serious range of issues. But the reality is that as much as it is difficult for women to admit and disclose their struggles, it is equally hard for families to cope with them because of the general lack of awareness as well as the stigma attached with psychological disorders.
Doha-based psychiatrist Dr Madhu Pahwa says that many women in Qatar suffer from a wide range of mental illnesses.
“There is a general prevalence of depression, anxiety, and then there are patients with post-partum depression and obsessive compulsive disorders to name a few among other mental illnesses,” she explained.
Madhu specialises in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness for all ages, and said that although she sees patients of all age groups frequently checking in to the clinic, there are two peak ages that stand out for women.
“We see two peaks in terms of age, women in their mid-30s to those in their early 50s. I would say 25 to 32 is one peak while 50s is another we see at the clinic often, but these issues are rampant throughout and it’s hard to say that one kind of mental illness is more prevalent among a certain age group.”
Asked if she can identify factors that may trigger psychological disorders in her patients, Madhu asserted that there were many, including genetic vulnerability.
“We have to understand that there are external and internal factors at play. There are direct biological factors that cause mental illnesses. It’s not just about having bad in-laws, or an unco-operative family. Science and research shows that it doesn’t always work like that. There are cognitive factors, personal factors, genetics, as well as society and the environment. Different cases come in with different scenarios.”
Among her patients, the veteran psychiatrist has seen many mothers struggling. She recalled one recent case of a mother who was struggling with a series of issues in her personal life that led to deteriorating state of mental well-being.
“It was a series of struggles. The couple was first suffering from infertility, they had IVF, and then there were other repercussions afterwards.”
The women in this case had twins, and suddenly she had to take care of not one but two children simultaneously, while also resigning from work that placed the family under a financial strain. Here was a couple that was at first struggling to have children. But things took a completely different turn when they had the one thing they wanted the most in life.
“The lady had to let go of her job, and so they faced financial struggles. The husband was very demanding and controlling. The care needed for the mother was not present nor was the husband physically present to take care of the children. On top of that, there were high expectations from the mother, and it affected the lady tremendously,” she explained.
When the family approached Madhu, she carried out a series of tests, including blood investigation, and thereafter, necessary measures were taken to ensure the family was given the help they needed.
“We brought the husband into the support system, we had CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy), clear cut guidelines were given, and touchwood there was significant improvement and the lady is doing well now.”
But the problem is that it’s not easy to come out in the open about internal struggles for women. Sometimes it takes a lifetime for women to identify the fact that something is just not right with them. It is easy to assume that parenthood comes naturally to women but it doesn’t, and revealing that struggle comes at the cost of being labelled a inept mother, and a woman who is inherently conceited and self-centred.
“Sometimes when in a group, one woman would start talking about her difficulties and struggles and then another would say: “Me too!” And then the third, fourth and a chain is formed where women start identifying issues that lead into deeper discussions about depression and so on,” Marta Saldaña Martín said.
On her part, Marta struggled with depression a few years ago when she suffered a life crisis after completing her PhD in Gulf Socio-Politics. After a period of deep reflection and inner conflict with support of a counsellor, she finally decided to give up academic life to become a counsellor, life coach mindfulness teacher supporting people towards mind and body well-being.
Marta quotes American research professor and author Brené Brown as an inspiration and says it’s okay to be vulnerable, share our difficulties and seek support. Brown extensively wrote about the cultural stereotypes associated with emotional vulnerability and the feelings of shame and uncertainty attached with it. She dispelled the idea of vulnerability as a weakness, and went on to call it a measure of joy and courage.
“This is why I always begin my first sessions by talking about my struggles and vulnerabilities, so that my clients realise its not only them going through hard times.”
Marta has been seeing clients and teaching mindfulness in Qatar and online for the past two years, and notes that most of her clients so far are Muslim women.
“There are women who are struggling with their partners, struggling to get pregnant, struggling to raise kids, each case in unique in its own way.”
Marta conducts a psycho-educational mindfulness 8-week group programme with weekly sessions where she teaches strategies to deal with stress, which is particularly beneficial for people suffering from anxiety and depression.
“Based on the MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) and MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) programmes; in my courses we learn about how the mind works and about the psychological and physiological benefits of mindfulness; identify self behavioural patterns; and practice meditation and exercises to be present in the moment rather than worrying about the past and future.”
Marta said that one of the reasons why people feel depressed or anxious is because they either can’t stop worrying about the future or can’t let go of something that happened in the past. “This is why I encourage people to practice being in the moment. When you’re having a cup of coffee, focus on its smell, its taste and learn to enjoy it. Our mind easily wanders off to different places when we are doing different activities and it’s important to learn to not be taken away from the experience by our worries.”
Speaking about society and cultural attitudes towards women, Marta said that during her research and interaction with women in the Gulf during the past 10 years, she often saw a conflict between the kind of lives young girls and women wanted to live versus the kind of life society and families envisioned for them.
“I see so many young girls struggling with freedom. These are young educated women who want to work and travel but they also want to have a family of their own. The problem is that the society expects them to choose one over the other. Many traditional families still expect women to give up their careers and many other things along with it if they want to get married and have kids and that’s not an easy decision to make,” Marta said, stressing that these ideals and expectations attached to women and mothers are rooted in culture and tradition rather than religion.
The stigma attached with seeking psychological and psychiatric help is widespread and there is still a long way to go before the shame related with mental illnesses is eradicated completely but experts believe that every 5-10 years, they see significant improvement.
More people are talking about it now, and with social media and education, there is a better understanding of mental illnesses, especially among the younger generation.
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