We Need To Talk

Bad days come and go far too often. Sometimes, I know why. Grief, I can understand. I know it well enough really and, hard as it can be, it is comforting in its predictability. It means I’ve lost something. It’s painful, but there is a justification for it. I can mourn. I can get closure. I can think about moving on, even if that takes a while. Same thing goes for lesser feelings of sadness. Disappointment at not meeting goals. Anger when something goes wrong. Fear when something could go wrong.

All of that makes sense. There is a clear direction, a cause and effect that can be followed and understood. It might not seem like it at the time, especially when the cause is out of my hands, but I can look back and at least comprehend why I why feel a certain way. But then, there are days when everything is going right – and it still feels completely wrong. Those are the really bad days.

I could be having the best week of my life, no question about it, and suddenly wake up the next morning feeling like the weight of the world is pressing down on my chest. Getting out of bed becomes a chore, one that needs to be broken down to make it easier. Slide the duvet off. Sit up. Put your feet on the ground. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. In an instant, what should be second nature is turned into the most daunting thing imaginable.

Forget having a productive day. Forget going about my daily routine. Forget work, forget studying, forget eating. Taking a step is now an achievement – and when I fail to do even that, I feel completely worthless. All the people I know are there for me every other day suddenly seem like strangers who would be better off without having to deal with my problems. It’s just easier to curl back in bed and not bother any more. But sleep is evasive, so my eyes stay open, the occasional flutter of their lids and the shallow rise and fall of my chest the only signs that I am not a cold, clammy statue.

This is what mental health problems can do to a person. Coming from a part of the world where the only two states of mind are sane and certifiable, it took me far too long to understand that these struggles are not uncommon. They are also extremely subjective. There might be broad symptoms for depression or anxiety or any of the other issues that can affect someone, but that does not mean any two people with the same diagnosis will react in remotely the same way.

People I care about – the same ones I feel toxic towards when I have those bad days – face these challenges too. Some are still dealing with grief from a time long past. Some are having to hide who they are because the world is unfair. Some are losing sleep because complete strangers are getting the chance to determine their future happiness. Some have a myriad of little problems that are creeping up on them. Far too many are not getting the help they deserve.

Maybe it’s the unpredictability of mental health issues that makes us unwilling to talk about them. Maybe we don’t want to acknowledge that something might be wrong. Or maybe we are too used to thinking that if something about us is different, the only acceptable solution is to fix it or hide it, not to accept it and manage it. The truth of the matter is that society still views mental health with disdain, and that judgement makes the situation even more harmful than it should be.

Bad days come and go far too often. They are terrible, but they are not terrifying. What is terrifying is that I still have to feel grateful about being given the chance to talk about my problems, that being able to share my feelings still makes me feel lucky. There is something intrinsically wrong with how we are raised to think about mental health. It is time we changed that, not because it will make us happy overnight – it is not that simple – but because it will make us okay. Right now, okay is a great start.

Mental Health Awareness Week runs in the UK from 11-17 May. Opening up about my problems to friends and family, and to professionals when needed, has changed my life. If you are reading this post, please take some time to take care of yourself and your loved ones, whether that is through professional help or simply opening up to someone you trust.

Muzzle Me Not

Avijit Roy is dead. The man who wrote passionately against violence, who championed secularism in a country that is becoming deeply conservative, who openly proclaimed his atheism despite his nationality, and who founded an online forum to promote respect and understanding has been taken away from the world. That his passing was brought about by an abhorrent act of violence, born out of hatred and ignorance, shows how valid his concerns were.

The world has taken notice this time and it is refreshing to see. There is a genuine concern of Western-centricism in the coverage due to the focus on his dual nationality, though the media should be commended for taking up the story in the first place. Credit where credit is due – the coverage has also mentioned the similarly brutal killing of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013, instead of just focusing on the “American” victim of a hate crime in a developing world. The outcry has been immediate and universal. The hope is that there will be justice.

Yet, that hope has been dangled in front of us before. When Humayun Azad, another prominent writer, was attacked in 2004, we were told there would be a swift response. The seemingly agnostic academic had been an outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism and it was the same zealots whom he criticised who ended his life.

Haider was born a Muslim but became an atheist, which in itself can prove fatal in the often volatile arena of Bangladeshi society. His blog helped influence the mass Shahbag protests and, sadly, it was his justified remarks against extremism that signed his death warrant. As with Azad, the authorities put on a show of consoling his family while promising action.

Unlike the other two, Roy had never held any allegiance to Islam, whether the peaceful religion or the warped version that is far too often spouted these days. Born Hindu – the largest religious minority, increasingly facing violent discrimination – the self-identifying lived in the USA but returned to his homeland because of his love for its history and culture, having visited the annual national book fair at the time of his death. Protests erupted after his death, followed by more promises from the higher-ups.

The harsh reality is that the violence meted out to these outspoken individuals was quick, but justice has been painfully slow. The impunity with which these attacks take place is terrifying. The attack on Roy and his wife, who thankfully survived but was severely injured, took place at a popular cultural festival. It was a Thursday, the start of the Bangladeshi weekend, so it was definitely crowded.

Yet, no one has been able to identify the culprits, let alone identify them. Haider’s attackers remain anonymous. So too do Azad’s. It is almost certain that there are tens, if not hundreds, of victims in this same time period who have also gone unnoticed, killed because they dared to speak their minds.

This is a part of the world where security services and the legal system suffers equally from self-created ineptitude and systemic obstacles. So, it is difficult to say whether this inaction is meant to be silent approval by the status quo of the removal of these radical, humanist thinkers or a case of resources being stretched too thin, or a combination of both.

What is certain, however, is that we are being muzzled as much by the ineptitude of the authorities as by the murderers themselves. To face adversity when standing up for a just cause is expected. But to then not be supported by those who claim to be fighting for righteousness, just as we are, makes it far worse. Avijit Roy is dead. As much as I hate to say it, but the ideals and the freedoms he espoused might follow suit.

Fearing boundaries

As promised, here is a look at the issue of immigration in the upcoming British elections, originally published as an op-ed for the Dhaka Tribune at http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2015/feb/15/fearing-boundaries

The upcoming UK general election brings with it the usual slew of new promises, public criticisms of opponents across the aisle, and a ramping up of electoral rhetoric.

In a country that is growing increasingly apathetic with its political system – the average voter turnout having fallen to the lower 60 percentage points compared to the low 80s and high 70s of the previous century – politicians are increasingly aware that every vote is vital for their party’s survival.

With the three major parties also becoming similar in their approaches to the main policy areas, despite their protestations, it also means that any area of contention is ripe for the picking. Immigration, a hot button topic five years ago, has therefore become one of the more evident battlefields for May 2015.

Parties on the right side of the spectrum are pursuing strong anti-immigration goals, while those on the left are promising greater protections for immigrant and minority communities.

This very noticeable divide is also seen in the debates regarding the economy and healthcare, but there is one key difference between these areas. Unlike issues such as unemployment or privatising the National Health Service, immigration is actually not a top priority for the average British voter.

National surveys by leading polling companies YouGov and Ipsos MORI indicate that more than half of the voting population think immigration has been given too much priority. On a national average, it does not even register as one of the top five issues.

Which then leads to a genuine consideration of why it is one of the three major areas of contention between the parties, and such a visible one at that. On one hand, perceptions of immigration are more contentious and easily skewed than other areas. A different Ipsos MORI poll found that most Britons think close to a quarter of the population consists of immigrants, with the popular image of a migrant being either South Asian or African.

They also believe that being from a non-EU country is more likely to make a citizen draw from the benefits programs and contribute less to the economy.

The reality, however, is that migrants only make up 9.4% of the British population. While India and Pakistan are among the top nations who contribute to UK immigration, Ireland actually has the highest number of immigrants in the UK, with Germany and the USA also in the top five, making the average migrant just as likely to be Caucasian as not.

Also, contrary to popular belief, immigrants are 45% less likely to draw benefits and 3% less likely to live in free council housing than the average Briton. Additionally, they contribute more taxes and are more likely to hold a university degree than a native citizen.

Parties are happy to exploit these misconceptions. UKIP and the conservatives are constantly framing their foreign policies with a narrative of the “imminent immigrant invasion,” though the latter are slightly more subtle about it.

Even Labour, who are tackling the negative economic impacts of immigration without resorting to fear-mongering, are not dispelling the myths surrounding it. By feeding off these irrational fears and targeting communities that are historically easy to make scapegoats of, the parties hope to get the crucial swing support of undecided voters.

These are the people who are less likely to be aware of the real statistics and, in an election that is far too close to call, they could prove the difference between government and opposition.

At the same time, the immigrant vote is also becoming more important. Of the current registered voters, 10% are not naturalised UK citizens. 70 of the 650 constituencies have enough immigrant voters to decisively determine the final result. Furthermore, there is now a new pilot scheme to allow eligible voters based in specific countries (including Bangladesh) to cast absentee ballots.

This means that immigration policies, while not a high priority across the nation, are likely to be a key issue for a substantial section of the electorate.

The immigration debate has come a long way from its early days. With the UK more multi-cultural than it has ever been before – despite the delusions regarding the actual extent – it is likely to remain one of the bigger topics of political discussion for several years, if not decades.

As far as the general election is concerned, it could make or break the parties’ successes.

Given the UK’s position as a world power, regardless of popularity, that still draws large numbers of immigrants from across the world, it is vital to see how voters respond to the rhetoric and how it will shape up after May.

Governing (for) the people

My second op-ed for the Dhaka Tribune, published a few weeks ago on the website at http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2015/jan/25/governing-people, written as an examination of election promises. Another article on immigration has since been printed, but I will post that after it has remained on the newspaper website for a few days.

January 20 in 1265 saw Britain introduce what was then a revolutionary step forward in world politics. For the first time in its history, a parliament was being held which was not called forward by the reigning monarch but was elected by the people to represent them at the highest level of government.

Known as the January Parliament, it set up the system that would eventually evolve into the House of Commons which, in turn, would shape parliamentary politics across the world via the British Empire and the Commonwealth.

Despite being an untested concept, early parliaments were surprisingly efficient in handling the affairs of the common man. Perhaps it was a result of the lack of other avenues available, but these sessions became a useful way for the average citizen to voice their grievances and even lead to practical solutions. How sad then that, 750 years on, this institution has lost touch with its roots, preferring to pay lip service to serious issues only during election years.

Five months from this momentous anniversary, members of the 66th modern UK Parliament will be voted into power in what is predicted to be a close race to the finish. In these uncertain times, parties across the board are scrambling to make promises that they are mostly unlikely to keep.

The Conservatives, the larger party of the current Coalition Government, have been working hard to woo voters on the right after the UK Independence Party stole their credentials with outrageous claims regarding immigration and race.

Hoping to win back some of that thunder, the Conservative platform has focused on maintaining the strength of the Armed Forces, tightening immigration and student visa legislation, a referendum on EU membership, and a host of surveillance laws to promote security at the expense of privacy and personal freedoms.

Their partners-in-crime, the Liberal Democrats, have been trying to distance themselves from the last five years, with a focus on mental health, child illiteracy and education – the latter being the golden bullet that got them the majority of the votes in 2010 and subsequently caused their downfall when they failed to deliver.

Labour, the opposition now after 13 years in power, has been attacking the Conservatives’ track record and promising to look at better healthcare for children, improvements in the National Health Service, a continuation of existing benefits schemes, and a commitment to stay in the EU.

All three major parties are also looking at the economy and whether it has made a full recovery since the recession earlier in the decade. Meanwhile, the smaller parties have been grabbing at growing concerns like Scottish devolution and environmentalism to try and get enough seats to gain more influence than they currently wield.

The problem with these seemingly well-planned campaign pitches is not that they are out of touch with the actual situation of the country but that these issues seem to be ignored unless it benefits the parties themselves.

Neglect and abuse in the mental health profession have been steadily highlighted for the past few years, including worrying reports that some facilities have been using physical violence and untrained workers to handle their patients. So too has the falling standard of the National Health Service and the challenges it faces with employing enough people to provide essential treatment.

Despite these blatant shortcomings – only two examples out of dozens more – politicians have done very little to actually tackle them when in power. Less than a tenth of the 650-strong House of Commons showed up to confer on schooling for Syrian refugees or knife crime prevention, but it was a full house when debating MP bonuses and corporate taxation.

Talking eloquently about the everyday problems of their constituents is all well and good, but it seems that only a handful of MP’s actually care about solving them.

Perhaps the system is to blame. UK electoral laws limit the range of funding available to the parties as well as preventing them from campaigning to the over-zealous degree seen in the USA or South Asia. As a result of these restrictions, it makes political sense to leave some issues unsolved in order to convince voters to return a group to power, while also focusing on the legislation that affects the most influential donors.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what is wrong with how things work. If the point of an election campaign is for a party to hold on to power, whatever the cost, then they serve no real purpose for the electorate.

Government should be to benefit the people, for every day of its five-year tenure, not just highlighting difficulties when it makes for good political capital. Perhaps the lessons of the January Parliament need to be relearned.

The strong arm of the law

My first op-ed written for the Dhaka Tribune, on the subject of police brutality. Please post any comments you might have on the newspaper’s website: http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2014/dec/23/strong-arm-law Thank you for your patience in waiting for my posts. I hope to be regular with them now, especially as I will have a fortnightly commitment with the Dhaka Tribune.

Rights are a difficult thing to consistently keep in the public eye. People have a way of championing the most honourable causes for weeks, only to give up when they realise the rest of the world has moved on. It is not entirely their fault.

After all, the only way to get others to pay attention is to talk about something recent. Racism was the hot topic for a while because of Ferguson and New York – and it still is for the people living there with its ramifications – but it lost traction in the UK the minute student protestors made headline news.

The possibility of a bigoted police force was no longer as terrifying as the reality of law enforcement officials lobbing CS gas at unarmed students and threatening them with conducted electrical weapons. This, in the same country which has still achieved no closure over the riots in 2011 which shut down the capital for the same reasons Ferguson became, and continues to be, a war zone.

What these two seemingly disparate movements are failing to bring attention to is the one common problem they share with each other and with various other parts of the world. While #ICantBreathe has become the rallying cry against racism and #CopsOffCampus for student rights, the underlying problem is that of police brutality.

The overarching narrative on both sides of the pond has been to focus on the individual tragedies of the events. The unprovoked shooting of a teenager, the strangling of an unarmed civilian, the image of a young student with bloated eyes while struggling to breathe – these are the stories that garner attention.

In order to stay relevant, campaigns are forced to highlight such specifics at the cost of a wider debate. The events of 2014 have allowed us to more openly challenge racial discrimination and student assault by law enforcement agencies but, by choosing to not look at the larger issue of police violence, we have allowed the state to quietly implement policies that could prove far more damaging in the long run.

Consider the use of weaponry in the UK. British police are consistently compared favourably to their transatlantic partners in crime due to the restraints placed on firearms. Unfortunately, that does not by any means ensure a lack of lethal force. The decision by the current government and the mayor of London allowing the use of water cannons to help protect the peace is the most glaring example of this increasing recklessness on the part of the authorities. They might not fire live ammunition, but these guns are capable of causing severe injuries, particularly to vulnerable organs like the eyes. Yet, these same machines are now valid responses to protests and rallies.

The situation across the pond is much worse. The numerous shootings of alleged suspects have already highlighted the problem of excessive arms usage but, instead of taking steps to correct these oversights in favour of more balanced measures, the official response has been to ramp up the pressure. Even as individual officers are escaping punishment, their colleagues are being ordered to take to the streets in armoured vehicles.

Protestors in Ferguson are making do with handmade gasmasks and helmets, while the police are arriving in full riot gear and army-grade hardware. Never mind the fact that the UN Committee Against Torture has openly condemned such tactics.

British and American law enforcement agencies are increasingly moving away from their role of protecting the people, and the state is sanctioning them to take steps that are disproportionately violent and brutal. This is even more worrying given that these are the nations the developing world learns its lessons from.

Their police forces provide technical expertise and training to many African and Asian nations, including Bangladesh, while their government policies are the gold standard to which we strive. Unfortunately, this opens the door for authorities in countries that already have problems of corruption and discriminatory practices to oppress and exploit civilians even further. We might not openly acknowledge Boris Johnson or Jay Nixon, but their decisions affect us all the same.

In an ideal world, the law and law enforcement agencies are not beholden to the state. Their duty is to protect the citizenry, not the regime. Unfortunately, the reality is that the state is now openly directing its officials to exert progressively cruel methods against the populace. It would be wrong to suggest that different types of discrimination do not feed into this system.

Indeed, it is our duty to fight against any infringement on human rights in whatever way we can. That being said, it would also be remiss to ignore the bigger picture. With authorities clearly sanctioning police brutality, we have entered a more dangerous world. We need to challenge these measures and make it safe again.

Hiatus

My sincerest apologies to my very few readers, but I have had to take another break from this blog. I have never been a consistent writer, but I did promise in one my recent entries to write a weekly or fortnightly series of pieces on the problems facing Bangladesh. However, a two-month holiday got in the way of fulfilling that and I am currently in the process of moving cities again. I might also have been given the opportunity to express my opinions on a more professional platform, in which case I will wait to post pieces there before linking them here, as I had done with my university newspaper publications earlier.

I hope you understand and forgive my inactivity.