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A Conversation with Dr. Akmal Makhdum On the Importance of Nurturing Your Mental Health



Dr. Akmal Makhdum

Dr. Mohammad Akmal Makhdum is a psychiatrist with over 35 years of experience. His father, the late professor M Ajmal, is known as the founder of psychology in Pakistan and established the first department of psychology and counseling in Pakistan in 1962. His mother, Akhtar Sultana, was a scholar of languages, literature, and religion. With a family history of academic and professional success, Dr. Makhdum is trying to follow his family’s legacy.

Dr. Akmal Makhdum graduated from King Edward Medical School in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1982, specializing in addiction treatment. Dr. Makhdum then established the first heroin detox and rehabilitation center in Islamabad. After the Soviet Russian occupation of Afghanistan, there was a massive influx of heroin into Pakistan and resultant dependency in the country. Dr. Makhdum dedicated his time to stopping it through educational, mass awareness and clinical initiatives

After five years of running the center, Dr. Akmal Makhdum moved on to the University of Cambridge’s psychiatry training program and trained in Norfolk, Cambridge, and Essex.

Throughout his attendance, he also earned both his post-graduate and advanced-graduate degrees in Psychological Medicine from Ireland and went on to obtain his diploma of Membership from the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, England.

After completing his degrees he returned to Pakistan and worked for the city government in Islamabad. After establishing the first department of psychiatry in Capital Hospital Islamabad and private practice clinic in Islamabad, Dr. Akmal Makhdum returned to England when invited to become a consultant psychiatrist for the psychiatry of learning disabilities services in Ipswich.  He worked as chief of psychiatry for specialist services for a number of years and expanded services in specialist mental health in the region.  He became a private consultant in developing varied models of mental and social health care services. Currently, he assists in the guidance and governance of intensive community care models and innovative community-based service models in the country.

Why did you choose to get into psychiatry?

 In a way, I was born into the field. To this day, my late father is praised as being the founder of psychology in Pakistan and I was inspired by him. When it comes to psychiatry, I was interested in how medicine interacts with the human mind and brain to alter behavior. Not everyone has the tools in their mental toolbox to be able to talk through issues and improve their mental health that way. I wanted to be able to help others through being able to provide them with proper medications that would help plus the emotional and intellectual capacity to manage life.

 What keeps you motivated?

 There is a lot of stigmas when it comes to mental health. In my profession, I aim to combat that stigma by working with my patients and helping them live their lives to the fullest. There are so many people that need help. Many suffer from addictions and other illnesses like PTSD and bipolar disorders. I am proud to have helped some of these people myself. There is still so much work to do when it comes to raising awareness for mental health.  My emphasis now is developing services and innovation in the field of mental health and social care for groups of people rather than focusing on individuals.

 What is the biggest lesson you have learned about leadership?

 You cannot control others but you can control yourself. There are many people that are micro-managers and keep stock of every movement their team makes. But at the end of the day, do you want to be remembered as a micro-manager? The best managers and leaders look at the bigger picture and lead their team to success by acting as mentors rather than managers.  Future planning is another of my interests.

 Who has been a role model to you and why?

 Both of my parents have always been role models for me. They both left legacies that are remembered and celebrated by those beyond their family and friends. Both were scholars who wanted the best for their family and they encouraged my siblings and me to work hard for everything we wanted in life and I can’t thank them enough for their support. It allowed me to be myself, whether up or down, and live with it.

 How do you maintain a work/life balance?

 When it comes to the medical profession, it sounds sad to say but there is often the idea that there is no such thing as work/life balance. To me, it has always been about balancing what is most important to you personally and if work is most important to you then there is nothing wrong with that, it’s just a matter of personal opinion. I prioritize fulfilling my own goals outside of work which centers around working with associations I am part of and publishing scholarly pieces. When I feel that I need a break, I go have multiple interests from poetry to reading of history and socio-political topics, to painting and films.

To date, It is my greatest misfortune that I lost my beautiful, angelic and beloved wife of 37 years to cancer recently.  Now, I go to her resting place and we have a chat, though one-sided but this gives me so much peace and happiness that I have her with me.  I’ll sit on a bench and just relax, share my trials and tribulations.  It is very soothing.  I am very fortunate that my children love being at home.  They are successful professionals in their own right and work.  Most still live at home.  That is really excellent.  Even one married son left his flat to be with dad, after mum’s parting, with his wife, who is more of a daughter than my daughter in law.  My grandchildren are my delight.

What is your biggest accomplishment?

 Opening the first heroin detox and rehabilitation center in Islamabad was a big accomplishment for me. At the time, there was a huge influx of heroin into Pakistan and resultant dependency in the country.  The worst part was that Pakistani youth were unsuspecting and unaware victims of this socio-chemical force. I was proud to be able to help them and my work granted me access to more education. It was a huge leap to open the center and it was a success built out of such unfortunate circumstances.

Then setting up the first department of psychiatry at the capital hospital in Islamabad.

Setting up the British Pakistan psychiatrists association, now in its 21st year of success as a national professional association of psychiatrists, was another one.

Setting up the British Pakistani Doctors Association was another of my initiatives in 2007.

Creating and steering the joint association of all ethnic psychiatrists in the United Kingdom in 2004 was another of my initiatives that have been a great success, and the forerunner of the diaspora committee at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Then the ETRI, earthquake trauma relief initiative, after the 2005 earthquake in Southeast Asia that killed 77,000 people, was a 5-year psychological assistance program that I developed, authored, and trained, and delivered by trained affected victims of the tragedy.  I raised funding from colleagues for it to run for 5 years.

So far, I have written 8 books and two more are in the pipeline.  One is dedicated to the memory of my beloved wife, Farah Akmal Makhdum ne’ Farah Bokhary.

What trends in your industry excite you?

 I get excited when I see the mention of there being a stigma when it comes to mental health issues. In my mind, many people don’t know they have a stigma against mental health issues and it’s like they’re wearing blinders. The fact that the stigma is mentioned means that people are more aware of it and are more likely to try and pinpoint why they have that stigma and work to eradicate it.

 What has been your biggest challenge?

 When my father passed, I had a really difficult time. Because my father was such a driving force in my life when I lost him it was as if that driving force was gone. At first, I had no idea how to handle it, as grief works in mysterious and different ways for everyone. It was the unrelenting, always smiling support of my wife Farah, and the smiles of my lovely children that kept me looking towards the future and they became my motivation.  Like me, I wanted to leave a legacy for my children, and a happy home for my dedicated wife.  She taught me to find motivation in my life and to carry on the legacy my father had built for me and try to do the same for my children.

My biggest challenge now is to live without Farah’s physical presence.

 What’s one piece of advice you would give to others to better manage their mental health?

 I would say first and foremost is for them to remember that they aren’t alone. There is always something available in their own resources: family, friends, older wiser people, social media, internet, and professionals.  We have psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health services for a reason and that is because many suffer from mental health issues in their daily lives. So, remembering that is step one.  Then family and friends that you can turn to in times of trouble. It’s not a bad idea to sit down with them and establish this support even when you aren’t having a particular mental health issue at the time. That should prepare them for when you actually do need that sounding board. It would also be irresponsible of me not to suggest that you should always seek out professional help if you aren’t sure how to manage your mental health. It’s what they are here for.

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