Turmoil takes toll on Egyptians’ mental health
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.”