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Egypt mental health case sparks call for action, not police-arrests

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

The history of Middle Eastern medicine is rich - Babylonian medicine, along with contemporary ancient Egyptians medicine helped formulate and shape the diagnostic, prognosis and prescriptions. Yet the region is severely lacking in adaptation to modern illnesses, primarily it’s acknowledgement of mental health issues.

Earlier this week, an elderly Egyptian woman who had known psychological difficulties was arrested after staging a theatrical (assumed fake) wedding. The authorities intended to “admit her into a psychiatric clinic” - while this may be needed, it should not have taken so long for an intervention. More importantly, it should not have been the police who intervened rather it should have been trained mental health practitioners.

Unfortunately, despite great advances in medicine thousands of years ago, the region has been slacking when it comes to mental health in recent years. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 4.18 psychiatrists and 4.62 psychologists per 100,000 of the population worldwide. The average in the modern Arab world is an abismal1.8 and 0.98 respectively.

The sociocultural sensitivity of mental health related issues means that to some in conservative communities, it is ‘shameful’ to seek help, or to discuss family-issues with anyone who is not directly related. There is nothing more shameful than not seeking help

Yara Al Wazir

The reason why mental health is lacking in the region is not as simple as a shortage of practitioners taking a step back and looking at the larger picture, it is difficult not to question why there aren’t more people choosing to support mental health in their careers. The reason is a three-fold combination of the lack of diagnostics, lack of facilities, and most importantly, lack of community support to patients.

The sociocultural sensitivity of mental health related issues means that to some in conservative communities, it is ‘shameful’ to seek help, or to discuss family-issues with anyone who is not directly related. There is nothing more shameful than not seeking help.

Without mental health practitioners, mental health patients cannot be diagnosed nor treated. Without data that backs up why the region needs more practitioners, some would argue that it is difficult to convince individuals to study mental health and take it up as a profession.

The absence of centralized medical systems only fuels the unnecessary fire that powers the stigma related to the issue. This can be clearly seen in the data – countries with a more centralized approach to healthcare and mental health (such as the UAE, Qatar) with hospitals that offer care to cancer patients in the same place as post-partum depression patients have a higher rate of practice.

Wars make patients scream for health

The wars that have plagued the region for decades, and the increased rates of people made refugees over the past decade in Iraq and Syria means that the region may be silently experiencing the highest rate of mental health related issues ever. According to the WHO, one in four people suffer from a mental health difficulty at some point in their life. Independent studies have shown that within communities affected by the conflict in Gaza and Lebanon, conflict-related issues range from 16 percent to as high as 60 percent. The issues faced range from PTSD, depression, to severe anxiety. Patients will never be able to recover from war-related trauma without facilities and experienced professionals able to help them. Until then, mental instability will continue to make their everyday life unnecessarily difficult, especially after all that they have been through already.

If the police have to intervene in a patient that requires mental health help, that is acknowledgement that the healthcare system has failed the patient by neglecting them for so long. Conservatism must no longer act like these issues don’t exist within the community, or that either sweeping them under the rug or through reading a book can cure them. Healthcare systems in the region need immediate help to improve support for mental health patients, with special attention and funding to countries that have seen severe conflict and trauma over the past decade. The region needs to invest in its future leaders - the region will be able to thrive and grow far healthier when its leaders are in a healthy, cared-for and acknowledged mental state.

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Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.