Turmoil takes toll on Egyptians’ mental health

Friday 06/11/2015
Daily pressures take a toll in Cairo.

Cairo - Political turmoil, the lack of a clear vision for the future, increasing vio­lence and rising commod­ity prices in the past few years have been underlying reasons why nearly 20% of Egyptians suffer some type of mental illness, psy­chologists say.

The government recently said about 16 million Egyptians suffer mental health problems. The Gen­eral Secretariat for Mental Health, a department of the Health Ministry, said the figure was almost double the average international rate.

Some psychiatrists say the num­ber of Egyptians with psychological problems could be far larger. They blame the country’s deteriorat­ing conditions during the past few years for the rise in psychological disease.

“Psychological pressures keep piling on ordinary people from ris­ing commodity prices to fear for the future,” psychologist Mohamed Mukhtar Saleh said. “You can see Egyptians talking on the phone all the time, which is a way for people to escape their psychological prob­lems.”

Egypt, which used to brag about its domestic peace and stability, has seen a surge in political turmoil, terrorism and violence. The enor­mity of the violence against peace­ful demonstrators in Cairo and else­where in the country in 2011 was shocking and traumatising to many.

For the first time, Egyptians saw their compatriots shot dead on the streets. Many people continue to deal with lasting physical injuries from the violence that happened during the protests, while others suffer psychological problems.

The uprising was followed by violence between Egypt’s political rivals, including the nation’s Islam­ists, to the extent that some agen­cies estimate the number of Egyp­tians killed between 2011 and 2015 at more than 10,000.

This is, of course, a small num­ber compared with the hundreds of thousands of people killed in wars in Syria or Libya or compared with the number of Egyptians killed in road accidents every year. This fig­ure is, however, large by Egyptian standards and shocking because most of the people who died were intentionally killed, according to rights activists.

And the violence-induced trau­ma seems to be sending a large number of people to psychiatric hospitals, including Abbasiya Men­tal and Neurological Hospital. The eastern Cairo hospital receives 200 to 300 new patients every day, ac­cording to director Hesham Magid. He said 80% of those patients have been in need of treatment for years.

Political violence and bloodshed are only a few of the reasons be­lieved behind the rise in the num­ber of people with psychological illness in Egypt. Psychologists also refer to the country’s tough eco­nomic conditions and the failure of a growing number of people to make ends meet.

“The rise in commodity prices and people’s growing fear for their future also stand strongly behind many of the psychological prob­lems we are seeing today,” Saleh said. “We are in bad need for aware­ness about means of eradicating these fears and reducing these pressures.”

Political violence and ongoing in­stability also undermined Egypt’s economy. Alongside government efforts to reduce subsidies and a weakening of the national curren­cy, commodities prices have more than doubled in five years.

Egypt’s security and political conditions are improving gradually but the economy may take longer to recover. Dr Nasser Loza, a psy­chiatrist and the former head of the General Secretariat for Mental Health, said there were not enough psychiatric hospitals in Egypt to meet the needs of patients needing treatment.

“Some patients spend 30 years in the hospitals for treatment,” Loza said. “In doing this, they leave no space for newcomers.”

About 18 state-run psychiatric hospitals offer treatment and con­sultancy to Egyptians suffering mental disorders across their coun­try, according to the Health Minis­try. In late 2014 some 57,000 people received treatment at those hos­pitals, the ministry said. However, according to the General Secretariat for Mental Health, only 15% of pa­tients seek treatment or consult a specialist because of negative per­ceptions about mental illness.

“Some people equate mental dis­orders with madness,” secretariat head Dr Hisham Rami said. “This is why a large number of patients prefer to stay away from psychiatric hospitals and clinics, even as they suffer.”