The Middle East is rife with issues, obstacles and challenges that severely affect the mental health of millions in the region. This is why we need to start talking about it.
A conversation about mental health is never quick or simple, especially in the Middle East where the approach to the issue is widely different with its own set of obstacles. While the conversation has become slightly more welcome in the last few years as our understanding of mental health grows, it remains somewhat vague and stigmatised in the region.
This makes little sense when we realise Middle Eastern cultures innately promote checking in with family and close friends, though this is often limited to questioning our loved ones’ physical health and not mental. Needless to say, there is no shame around ailments and illnesses, and it may just be time for us to shift the way we view health in all its aspects – and that includes our mental state.
While we have an individual responsibility to increase our awareness around these matters, there is a bigger problem. The Middle East is rife with a range of life-threatening issues – including conflict, political instability, poverty and disease – that make it very hard for people to acquire their most basic needs. The contemporary socio-political history of the Middle East has undoubtedly been traumatising for millions, and while some countries have seen more than others, each has its own particular challenges.
For this reason, these high levels of trauma have unfortunately been normalised, prompting millions to become somewhat desensitised to a string of serious issues. An all too familiar response is to show gratitude in the face of adversity, resilience and the notion of picking yourself back up even before the dust has settled. While this is powerful advice for those with little resources available, it can be severely detrimental in the long term, not just for an individual and their health, but for the wider society.
Adding the word ‘trauma’ and normalising its use within our culture and society is absolutely necessary to curb the stigma attached and allow for healing conversations to start. While trauma has often been linked to war, any situation that a person finds traumatic, whether minor or major, can cause Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These situations may include bereavements, violent incidents, childbirth experiences, health issues and car accidents.
Most recently in Lebanon, the devastating Beirut port blast triggered trauma across the city for many that experienced the 2006 war, according to reports. In Qatar, the three-year blockade has traumatised families that have been ripped apart due to prohibitions imposed by the land, air and sea restrictions on travel.
Mental health does not just ‘go away’
We may have experienced such things ourselves or at least know others traumatised by these issues. It is therefore poignant to question why there is shame attached to trauma when these experiences are common all around us.
The truth is, if we perceive our mental and physical health in a similar fashion, having access to therapy would be as normal and benign as going to the local doctor to discuss our physical symptoms. Abandoning our mental health puts us at risk. Mental health does not just ‘go away’.
While there is no blanket response to not addressing mental health, it has been proven that avoiding it can result in increased risk of physical illnesses, substance misuse, worsening mental state, an increased risk of suicide and also contributing to the breakdown of personal relationships.
In Qatar, the ministry of health has integrated mental health services into primary healthcare in a positive step that highlights the importance of the issue at hand. This takes pressure off non-governmental organisations that offer psycho-social support but are often stretched and lack resources to reach as many people as needed.
There is no quick fix to mental health but now is a great time to attempt to improve services for people around the region. Until then, we can use our individual resources to research more on the topic, look into services we may benefit from, donate to local services if you can afford to do so, and most importantly, check in with our friends, families and colleagues.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health in Qatar, you can find more information here.
Reem A. is a youth worker with experience in supporting vulnerable young people that have gone through criminal justice or social care systems.