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Talking saves lives

Changing Lebanese society’s view of mental health

by Mia Atoui

The conversation around mental health in Lebanon has been ignited. While some believe we are still at the beginning of this journey, it is safe to say that the past five years—and in particular the past six months—have witnessed a dramatic change in the state of mental health awareness and resources in Lebanon. This change has come off the back of years of academic research, lobbying, awareness campaigns, and a national mental health strategy launched by the Ministry of Public Health in 2014.

The concepts of mental illness and mental wellbeing are not new to Lebanon. The wars and turmoil the country has suffered have left a clear impact on the generations who lived through them, as well as those they raised. Lebanese have been using mental health services for many years, though these have been restricted to the affluent segment of the population, who can afford them and have the knowledge to recognize their need for them.

The cost of mental health care, lack of awareness of the symptoms of mental illness, and deeply entrenched societal stigma are the main barriers preventing Lebanese citizens from accessing mental health services. These barriers continue to create a gap in our system—one that disadvantages a large section of the population when it comes to seeking health care services that many consider a fundamental human need.

Good mental health and access to healthcare services in the event of a mental illness are as basic and fundamental as good physical health and access to a doctor when sick—a fact that remains difficult for far too many to comprehend. One reason for this is that in Lebanese society mental illness has long been stigmatized. The misconception that a person’s mental health is a reflection of their character or personality—something within their own control—is still rife in this country. Those who do suffer from a mental illness are then judged, off the back of these ill-informed opinions, as being weak, or lacking some kind of discipline or will power. Mental illness is not appreciated for what it is, an illness. The alternative is simply to “pull yourself together.”

The impact of stigma

These misconceptions mean that those who do suffer from a mental illness are especially cautious about raising the topic of mental health with even close friends or family, as it often leads to feelings of embarrassment, doubt, or shame, thanks to being exposed to these flawed ideas. The most commonly raised feelings behind the closed doors of a psychologist or psychiatrist’s clinic in Lebanon is a reflection of this guilt and shame: “My feelings are too silly, my problem is just too insignificant to be discussed in here. I should just keep them to myself and just pull it together.”

Here, I must assert that this attitude is dangerous, as it deprives its owner of the basic need to be seen as a normal human being, and to be validated for their own pain, struggles, and vulnerabilities.   

What is positive here in Lebanon is that these misconceptions around mental illness are slowly changing. Families and individuals are coming to terms with the scientific facts; although the exact cause of most mental illnesses is unknown, it is becoming clear through research that many of these conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. National campaigns, as well as social media, allow these messages to spread faster and more effectively than they used to. Mental health professionals, NGOs, and academic and governmental institutions in Lebanon, each in their own way, have been educating the public on mental health by opening up the conversation and pushing for more resources and increased access to treatment.

Talking is treatment

Talking saves lives: having an open and honest conversation about mental health can help those suffering and this open dialogue is gaining momentum. Forcing a nuanced and healthy dialogue about mental health into the public’s awareness is what Embrace has been doing these past five years. Through campaigns like “Fekko el-e’ede” (Untie the knot) and “Akid rah fee’” (Of course I will wake) alongside the annual commemorative “Into the Dawn” walks in support of suicide victims and their families, and culminating with Embrace Lifeline, the first suicide prevention helpline in Lebanon and the Middle East, we have unlocked the doors of stigma. As a society, we are ready to embrace mental illness and take on the responsibility of seeking change and improved quality of life.

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Mia Atoui

Mia Atoui is a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Embrace, a non-profit organization that works to raise awareness around mental health in Lebanon and the Middle East.

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