Vahid‘s story

"I think that until a person experiences some kind of disability, they hardly know their inner, hidden qualities. Since my mental health problems began, I have found an inner energy that was always there, but which I had no access to before. Now I use that energy for my own good and the good of my community.

I was born in 1961 in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I still live with my wife and daughter. I was a soldier in the Bosnian war of 1992–1995, and experienced my first mental health problems after being seriously wounded by a grenade shell in September 1992. My prostate gland, urinary tract and intestines were damaged, as were the peripheral nerves of my right leg. I had seven operations in all, the last three in the Czech Republic, where they sent me in 1994. I still have a grenade fragment in my body.

My war wounds left me feeling anxious and distressed, and I began having nightmares and becoming disturbed by the smallest trifle. The problems grew worse and, by 1996, I had become so fearful that I could no longer go out alone. My wife had to escort me every time I left the house, I was terrified of being on my own and afraid of going mad.

At that stage, I started seeing a neuropsychiatrist, and was lucky enough to meet an understanding doctor who regarded me as a human being and not just as a patient. The fact that she did not have me admitted to a psychiatric ward but treated me as an outpatient is a key explanation to my present situation, I think. Hospitalization would have traumatized me even further but, in contrast to most of her colleagues in the region, my psychiatrist gave me individual treatment and dedicated her time to me right from the start. During my sessions with her, my strength was restored, and I regained belief in myself as a person.

But I have also been fortunate in having the support of family and friends. My wife and my daughter have played a crucial role in my recovery. During my times of hardship, they were always there for me, guiding me and giving me the strength to move on. Apart from engaging herself personally, my wife would also involve some of our friends in supporting me.

With the patience of my family and assistance from friends throughout that first year, I arrived at my present, active phase, where I am very much involved in the local mental health scene. In addition, I can boast that I have made many new friends, both privately and in my field of action.

The road has not been easy, however. Like many others I felt ashamed when I started using the mental health services, mainly because of the negative attitudes in my community (especially in the rural areas). I experienced discrimination at my workplace, where certain colleagues could not accept the fact that I was unable to work at full capacity. Along with my psychiatric problem, I have a physical disability which impedes me, and I would often hear comments like “get out of the way“ or “go and see a doctor or get yourself retired“. My answer would invariably be “I shall do that when it suits me, not when it suits you“.

I am a building technician by trade but, owing to a lack of jobs in the construction sector, I was retrained as a shoemaker. After being wounded in the war, I was on sick leave until 1996, when I went back to work at the shoe factory. Because of my physical and mental disability, I could no longer work in production, however, and was given a less demanding job in a warehouse. I retained the same income as before, so in that respect I was not discriminated against. After four years I retired, since the work was too physically strenuous for me in the long run.

Since then, I have had more free time, which I use to help my wife decorate the surroundings where we live. I also try to express my culinary abilities by being active in the kitchen.

I have an invalid pension, as I was disabled in the war, which means I receive more or less the minimum monthly amount to cover my basic needs. This makes me more fortunate than most of my fellow users of the mental health services in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The majority of them do not even receive the bare social minimum.

When I began getting involved in the user movement, I must admit I had some difficulties in explaining who I was and what I represented. One experience that helped me was an informal conversation I had with the former head of Tuzla Municipality and governor of Tuzla Canton, Mr Selim Beslagic. After I had introduced myself and asked for support for my organization, Mr Beslagic told me: “You must be persistent and tug me by the shirt collar! If you want to succeed you have to be annoying!“ That experience contributed greatly to the fact that I communicate freely with the decision-makers at local community level today.

The association I work for is called ‘Fenix’, or the Association for Mutual Support in Mental Distress, in Tuzla Canton. It was founded on 1 April 2000, with the support of, amongst others, the Hamlet Trust in London. For the second time running, I am the president of the Association. Fenix advocates in favour of user interests and the empowerment of the user movement, and is known and recognized for the creation of mental health policies in our local community and beyond. With financial aid from foreign donors and support from the local community, Fenix has implemented many projects. We have our own place where our members can meet. We also own a van, a wood processing workshop and a greenhouse for vegetables. Apart from informal socializing, we offer a range of services and activities such as legal aid, art and wood processing workshops, social skills learning, and the publication of books and brochures. We cooperate with many other nongovernmental organizations, some of which have legal departments, where we may seek support.

One of our main objectives is to raise awareness about mental health and the problems encountered by mental health service users. To this end, we organize press conferences and roundtables, participate in local radio and television shows, and publish public information. Each year we mark International Mental Health Day and focus on the topics recommended by WHO. In 2007, we concentrated on an interesting topic, namely suicide prevention. We were overwhelmed by media representatives from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina who wanted to hear about our Association and the problems we live with.

The user movement is still far from developed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, and basic human rights are often breached. Users are gravely stigmatized by medical professionals and civil society for example, and the conditions in closed psychiatric institutions are by no means adequate. The whole community can help in fighting these discrepancies and diminishing discrimination against mental health users, but I think the crucial role should be played by the user organizations and the users themselves.

There are positive changes taking place, in my view. We can sense it in the psychiatric institutions, where there is an improved relationship between users and doctors, and the whole atmosphere is becoming more human. We need to be both optimistic and realistic, however, and accept that we cannot change the environment we live in overnight. But, since members of the user organizations have begun to talk openly about their problems, more of us have become engaged in socially beneficial activities and the issue of mental health has begun to take its rightful place in public awareness."