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  • Women with training from the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme are helping their communities fight the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic.
    AKDN / Kamran Beyg
Aga Khan Rural Support Programme
Women addressing mental health in Gilgit-Baltistan

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world. Its physical and economic effects are amplifying the psychological ramifications of lockdowns, uncertainty and loss.

In regions like Gilgit-Baltistan, in northern Pakistan, hard-to-reach communities are beginning to understand how the pandemic has influenced their mental health. The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), with financial support from the European Union and the Aga Khan Foundation, is alleviating some of these effects through psycho-social training sessions and services.

Meet three women who are helping their communities understand the psychological impact of COVID-19 and how to improve their mental health.

Fatima, Skardu

Fatima is married to a construction worker, and they have four school-age children. Unable to find work during lockdown, Fatima’s family exhausted almost all their savings and daily living became harder. 

“There was always a situation where everyone from the children to their father would get impatient and tend to argue,” she explained. “I tried hard to stay calm and patient, but it was very tough. Due to their idleness, my children started disobeying us. My husband, generally a calm person, would argue back.”

“The situation became very complicated, and I did not know how to deal with it. Then I was approached by my neighbours, and we participated in the session organised by a local support organisation, in which we talked about mental health, and the effects of the pandemic and lockdown on different aspects of life. These sessions made it easier for me to understand the situation and how to deal with it.”

Fatima now champions the AKRSP training and reinforces its teaching within her community: “ Sometimes you don’t need money. Simply having an understanding of a problem makes it easier to cope with. Thanks to AKRSP for extending this valuable support at such a critical time.”

Saeeda, Shigri Kalan

Saeeda, a social worker, worked as a community resource person under AKRSP’s COVID-19 response project. She was trained on the importance of mental well-being and helped run sessions on the different types of mental health illnesses that could manifest from the pandemic, including depression, anxiety, panic attacks and social phobia. 

Amulets and charms are often used to treat mental illnesses in this region, and this was the first time many members of her community were learning about mental health. Saeeda educated her neighbours about the topic and helped those who had been unwell and unresponsive to medication to seek local support services, supported by AKRSP, to manage their symptoms.

“I am proud to have been able to use my training for good and I want to continue doing so,” she said. “I feel more equipped to help my community understand the importance of good mental health.”

Atiya, Gilgit

Atiya is a volunteer who was familiar with AKRSP’s previous emergency and local support organisation work within her community. She attended the “Psychological Impact of COVID-19” training session and saw its benefits straight away.

“People were very scared after the first and second wave of COVID-19. They were less serious about the impact of the disease with the third wave. As the national tally of the disease was getting higher and taking more lives, communities started understanding this new wave was dangerous and this had a mental impact. So, I took it upon myself to get the message across to communities when AKRSP approached us to organise a session on the impact of COVID-19. Such sessions really helped people out of difficult psychological situations.”

Feeling inspired, Atiya studied the COVID-19 literature provided by AKRSP and started visiting individuals in her community to educate those reluctant to follow safety measures. She has been successfully educating people on the severity of the pandemic, whilst distributing protective equipment to help control the spread of the disease.

While the psychological effects of COVID-19 may be invisible, the stresses that accompanied the pandemic have been vast. Thanks to women like Fatima, Saeeda and Atiya, communities in northern Pakistan are beginning to heal emotionally and mentally.

“Critical preparedness, readiness and response actions for the coronavirus disease pandemic in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral” is a project funded by the European Union and the Aga Khan Foundation and implemented by agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network. Views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union.