In Conversation With Ali Ilyas: Maintaining Mental Health Within COVID-19

In this interviews series, Ali Ilyas discusses his journey within his professional fields of mental health. He is an active therapist who is working to help individuals, create awareness and modify the fields of psychology in Pakistan.

What is your educational background and professional experience that you’ve gained till now? 

Ali Ilyas has done his masters psychology from the NUST, Islamabad. With regards to professional experience, he has been providing therapy under his own private practice and has also been active in the corporate sector. He is an employee counsellor for an apparel company, and making mental health part of the organizational plan for different companies. Additionally, he is also an active researcher in forensic psychology.

What prompted you to choose this field?

Other than his own personal experiences dealing with mental health, Ali was influenced by a book called The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant and a TV series called The Mentalist.

An amalgamation of the three was intellectual, personal and social factors that allowed Ali to pursue psychology during his masters and continue it professionally in his experience also.

What would you consider a leading cause of deterred mental health in today’s world?

The World Health Organization tells us that mental health problems are found in low income countries. With Pakistan being one of those countries, there are a lot more mental health issues prevalent. These issues are biological, psychological, socio-economical or a combination of the three.

Socio-economic conditions includes factors such as low pay, joblessness, crime rate, fear of life and your overall social circle. Biological factors relate to inherent genes, family illnesses etc., and psychological factors include an individual’s personality, temperament and how well they handle certain situations.

If you were to compare the statistics of mental health illnesses in Pakistan with other countries, are they worse or better?

Unfortunately, questions like these cannot be answered directly due to the lack of research. Since Pakistan is only starting out, there are many areas that are yet to be tapped.

Socially, and not statistically, there are factors that raise these numbers. For instance, the stigma for speaking out about mental health issues is high in Pakistan. Other than this, locals are unaware of the role of therapy and a therapist, itself. Due to the lack of education and awareness, mental health issues do tend to rise since not many speak out about them.

Research also tells us that if women are financially dependent, have issues with their husbands/in-laws, or have no child-bearing rights, factors such as these put an individual at a much higher risk of developing mental health problems. Many of this boils down to cultural aspects, and it is the environment that adds a burden on an individual.

If we consider pre-COVID and current-COVID times, how do you think a change in mental health has occurred?

The amount of people approaching for therapy has increased by a large number especially since the government announced a lockdown. However according to Ali, social isolation does not necessarily mean emotional isolation. Inevitable to happen, he feels we can use innovative means of technology to cater to the emotional isolation. Simply by calling up a friend in another city or using our cellular technologies to connect with the world can add the sense of support we need.

Ali also feels people are using social media have increased ever since the onset of the virus, and the amount of personal expression online has possibly doubled. For instance, if an incident occurs in Karachi, the same news will be shared by almost 30 to 40 percent of someone’s friend list – allowing them to read up more about it on a constant basis. Such multiple reminders lead to mental health problems also and social media is one of the leading factors in doing so.

What are some of the simple coping strategies you’d suggest during times like these?

A misconception that people have about psychotherapy is that it is based on techniques and strategies. Even though such factors are important, there is much more to it that includes the overall process a patient goes through with the psychotherapist. Due to this, process oriented therapy is more important since it is about self-discovery and introspection – not just laying out coping strategies for instant solutions.

Some of the coping strategies Ali mentions are individualistic. He suggests that they might work for some, but not all. However, they are proven to be beneficial in some form or the other.

First comes mindfulness which is a contemporary technique that allows one to practice breathing patterns in isolation. Second comes maintaining a gratitude diary that allows one to document three things they are grateful for at the end of the day. Third is, grounding techniques for anger and anxiety. Similar to mindfulness, they help to stay present and allow people to control their negative emotions.

How do you think therapy can create a global impact, if it moves beyond the relationship between a therapist and a patient?

There are certain aspects of therapy that have created a global impact. According to Ali, one does not need to be a therapist to be therapeutic. Someone can be a good friend in order to be there for someone with an unconditional positive regard. They can engage in ways of active listening in order to provide support for someone facing difficulty and allow a close-knit bond within a community. Such acts like these become a large-based impact by positively influencing people around you, creating a domino effect of empathy and support.

What are the changes you’d like to see in therapy within Pakistan?

There needs to be a regulatory authority within the fields of psychology in the country. Due to the lack of regulation or authoritative body, cases of malpractice increase. For instance, when a therapist is not registered with an organization, a patient has no one to approach in case some sort of malpractice occurs. Additionally, Ali also hopes regulatory bodies within psychology could study marginalized populations. Within his research in forensic psychology, he feels mental health issues of prisoners and other groups such as these are crucial to take into account. Lastly, he feels there needs to be more awareness on the roles of a therapist. One of the regular questions he has encountered is when people ask: What do I do about my negative thoughts? He feels it is questions like these that create incertitude about what therapists are meant to do, since he opts to work with people during their sessions and not give blanket solutions that may not even work.

What is the one piece of advice you would give for the youth of today?

“What I really would say is that, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. Many of my own mentors make mistakes and I do too. However, once you learn how to forgive yourself and how to take responsibility without blaming yourself, that’s when you’ll really start to grow. And if you’re someone who does their best to be a good friend and be empathic towards other people, show yourself some of that empathy too. You’ll need it as much as others do too.”