Fighting for the rights and dignity of marginal communities suffering from the stigmatization of mental health illnesses — Shamsin shares how she is changing the perspective of mental disability in Bangladesh
Immediately after completing her Undergraduate degree, Shamsin Ahmed joined the largest development organization in the world, BRAC. Working in the field of disability inclusion and financial inclusion in Bangladesh, Shamsin realized that societal structures were not conducive to the rights and abilities of those suffering from mental health illnesses and developmental disabilities. Instead, due to a lack of education, awareness, and training resources, these communities suffering from mental health issues were faced with discrimination, stigmatization, and a very limited scope for employability. This lead Shamsin and her best friend to start the ‘Identity Inclusion’ project, a platform to provide psycho-social support to these communities and organize trainings to provide families and volunteers with the right tools to encourage the inclusion of such a large community affected by mental health illnesses.
Her project, ‘Identity Inclusion Project’, aims to break down mental health stigma, promote community based health services, and promote the social inclusion of people with psycho-social disability.
Q&A with Shamsin Ahmed:
What are some of your biggest motivators?
There’s a sense of self worth that comes from being able to help others, being the person people reach out to and trust, that motivates me. It is also very humbling and inspiring, to see the resilience and perseverance of people who are deemed ‘different’, disadvantaged, wronged are still able build a world for themselves where they thrive.
What are your biggest successes since the start of your mission/initiative?
We have been supporting a little boy with Cerebral Palsy. When I first met him he had not been diagnosed, he could not stand, speak and had saliva constantly rolling down one side of his mouth. His poor mother, having faced stigma and abandonment from her in-laws, for giving birth to a disabled child, was faced with having to go out to the street with him and beg. We got him diagnosed, paid for his treatment and provided moral support to his mother. Within a year not only is he able to stand, he runs, and has been enrolled in a school. His mother has been accepted into the family again. When we started our project with a family support group meeting we thought no one would show up but the turn out was good and now we hold Support group meetings every month with more and more people taking an interest in participating.
What are your biggest challenges and limiting resources?
Mental health is one of the most neglected areas of public health in Bangladesh. Despite prevalence of mental illness being as high as 16.5 % amounting to over 20 million affected people — social stigma, lack of mental health services and parochial policies leave sufferers with little recourse. The Indian Lunacy act of 1912 is still in effect, and although a new Mental Health Act was drafted in 2013, it has yet to be approved by the Ministry of Health. Less than 0.5% of our national health budget is allocated for mental health, a pittance given the scale and the seriousness of the situation. The focus on psycho-social disabilities as opposed to mental ‘illness’ is to acknowledge and address the pervasive stereotypes, attitudes and barriers faced by people suffering from mental health issues, learning/developmental disabilities, or conditions such as epilepsy and cerebral palsy. This is a political response and one that is new to other welfare approaches in the country.
What do you think are the two most important issues that should be addressed in our society today?
That disability is a socially created problem and NOT an attribute of an individual. Developing emotional intelligence and institutionalizing social inclusion should be a part of our education system.
What is the next milestone you are trying to achieve through your mission/initiative?
We are currently advocating for the development and passing of a new mental health act, we want to continue providing psycho-social support, promote social inclusion especially in educational institutions, and to promote employability of those stigmatized by disability.
What does the AJALA Project mean to you and what do you expect from us?
I understand it to be a platform that help promotes people and good social causes they are pursuing. I see it as an opportunity to represent myself and the work of people like me. I would like the members of the community to help me promote the social definition of disability as a social problem. I would also like feedback from the community and connections to others like me who can help me take my cause forward.
How do you plan to expand your operations?
We hope to offer sufferers and their caregivers enough information and knowledge to utilize cognitive behavioral approaches in their lives. The objective is to sell our psycho-social support services to health and other institutional service providers, offering effective treatment nationwide. Opening up this new revenue stream will help us to expand our community services across Dhaka, and all over Bangladesh.
If you were to receive funding, how would that help your mission/initiative?
Most of our spending is behind capacity development of the youth volunteers we work with. Certified training on psycho-social support is quite expensive in Bangladesh. To ensure they provide quality psycho-social support requires us to invest in them, given the nature of the work they do, funding would be invested in capacity development from places of best practices which requires a lot more than what small donations can afford.
The operational costs of running this project has so far been from my personal funds which is insufficient if this is to be available at a larger and more accessible scale. I will thus need funding to take this project forward and have it grow in outreach.
Written by Narmeen Naser