Beirut breaking the taboo of mental illness

Friday 08/01/2016
Speakers at the Unmasking Mental Illness event at the American University of Beirut.

Beirut - If there were a list of things Arab society prefers to never talk about, mental illness would be on top. Suffering from men­tal illness is often perceived as shameful, and a sign of a weak personality that requires isola­tion or pity. However, many young Lebanese are acknowledging how dangerous such a stigma is and are moving to break the taboo.

Hundreds of students made up a full-house at Unmasking Mental Ill­ness at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in November to listen to four people describe dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar disor­ders and the often-misunderstood obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

“Now we hear ‘I am OCD’ (sarcas­tically) every day from almost eve­ryone who has a habit or obsession with keeping things proper and in order,” said one of the speakers, a man in his early 20s, “but it’s really not that funny. It’s rather painful.”

All ears and heart, students asked questions, empathised with the speakers and some even referred to their own suffering.

The event was organised by Embrace, a 2-year-old initiative at AUB’s psychiatry department, which says one of its missions is to spread awareness of mental illness.

“Embrace’s first awareness cam­paign was titled Untie the Knot,” the group’s advocacy coordinator Farah Yehia said.

It was both a call on people suffer­ing from mental illness to accept it and on others to break the stigma associated with it, she said. Okda, the Arabic word for “knot”, can ei­ther mean “complex” or “stigma” in Lebanese Arabic.

But the organisation gained its widest reach when it directed its campaign towards preventing sui­cide in 2014, pointing out that there is a suicide in Lebanon every three days.

Although the rate is not high com­pared to other countries, Embrace’s founder Dr Ziad Nahas explained it does not reflect the total number of individuals who seriously consider suicide.

“If the World Health Organisa­tion’s rule that for every successful suicide there are ten to 20 failed at­tempts, it would mean that one per­son attempts suicide every seven hours in Lebanon,” he said.

In addition to raising awareness and supporting people with mental illnesses, the organisation set an ad­ditional goal of setting up the first suicide prevention hotline in Leba­non.

The project relied on individual contributions through online crowd funding and it was recently an­nounced that $20,000, needed for the first preparations, had been col­lected. It is to be launched in 2017 and will be operated by trained spe­cialists who would listen to callers and help them avoid self-harm.

One legitimate question was raised during the AUB conference: “Would someone who’s willing to commit suicide pick up the phone and call a hotline?”

“Yes” is the answer, according to Nada, who told of her experience with severe clinical depression and anorexia.

“Two of my three suicide at­tempts were not really actions based on the decision to end my life,” said Nada, who asked to be identified by her first name only. “They were rather calls for help.”

Rising as a successful woman in Qatar’s male-dominated field of in­vestment banking, Nada said she never thought she would end up spending two months in hospital under strict supervision and very high doses of antidepressants.

But, after missing out on what she calls the “job opportunity of [her] life”, she found herself unemployed and dark thoughts took over.

“I had been working non-stop since I was 17. I had never been jobless before. I used to extract my value from work and work de­fined me,” she recounted. “So, even though I was doing a lot of things, I felt that my life was empty (when jobless).”

The crisis led her to resort to self-isolation, which she justified as a space to reflect on the unfortunate developments but was actually a time of “pessimism”, full of what-ifs and self-demeaning thoughts.

“I felt the need to punish myself for making the wrong decision. Then I started feeling that I was not entitled to the food in front of me, because it was not the result of my own labour. This led me to anorex­ia,” she said.

The biggest challenge Nada said was accepting that she must seek medical help.

“I could not accept that I needed help,” she said. “It made me think of myself as weak, as opposed to the person I used to be: strong, self-achieved and independent.”

And because stigma goes hand in hand with ignorance, Nada’s par­ents — both medical doctors — had no idea how to deal with a depressed daughter and found it difficult to even admit her mental illness.

“In an attempt to help me restore my appetite, my mother used to cook a meal that I loved. I obviously did not eat any but this shows how they [my parents] did not know how to deal with it,” Nada said.

After experiencing the disheart­ening effects of stigmatisation first-hand, Nada started her journey with Embrace two years ago and now speaks publicly about her experi­ences.

She and dozens of other patients act as Embrace’s motor, volunteer­ing to carry out the organisation’s projects and events.