Noor El Huda A. Bashir- MIddle Eastern Studies BA
Education and awareness are the first hurdles, once people are aware of an issue, they are ready to tackle it.
The ‘M-H’ word: a tricky topic in the most liberal and open of places and a generally unspoken taboo in the MENA region. Often shrugged off as a lack of prayer, a lapse of devotion, a sickness or even- in some rare cases- possession. Mental health issues are considered a social death sentence in much of the Middle East and North Africa. The genesis of this general attitude is extensive and covers a wide range of social, political and economic factors, but harder than pinpointing the exact conception of the MENA vs mental health debacle, is moving forward and tackling the generational trauma and repressed internal struggle that exists within so many members of this community.
The Arab Youth Survey 2019 carried out by Asda’a BCW, showed mental illness to be a widespread concern among young people in the Middle East and North Africa. Worryingly, less than half of those who took part (men and women aged 18-24) said they would seek professional help if they were suffering from a psychological disorder. Fadwa Lkorchy, a psychologist at the Dubai-based German Neuroscience Centre, explains that “the Arab population is plagued by issues that are no different from any other population in the world: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, suicide, self-mutilation, post-traumatic disorders and mood disorders. The difference now is that the Arab world is willing to admit the problem.” It is this changed attitude that Lkorchy mentions that requires our attention here. With the imminent hand over of power to the next generation, the youth of the arab world show promise in making major advances in regard to mental health awareness.
So, the question remains: what can be done? Speaking as an outsider, although of Arab descent, it would be infantilising to make suggestions to the people of the region of how best they could solve their issues. However, that being said there are things that can be done within the vast communities of MENA immigrants abroad, the primary focus being education. Education and awareness are the first hurdles, once people are aware of an issue, they are ready to tackle it. Furthermore, for members of the community who live with issues of mental health and psychological disorders, having increased awareness creates a safe space in which they are able to find more people they can relate to and in whom they can confide. Following from this, engagement is necessary. Education is all well and good but unless it is engaged with it is simply memorisation. We can attempt to engage with what we learn by starting a dialogue around the topic, encouraging openness and starting a discussion that will go on through the generations, equipping the members of the MENA community abroad with the knowledge and experience to ensure that the oversights of the generations before us are not repeated.
At the end of my first year, as I was looking to get involved with societies, it occurred to me that there was a gap in the MENA society committee in that there was no position dedicated to mental health; and so, with a quick suggestion, the mental health and wellbeing officer role was born and I took on the position. One of our aims as a committee is to provide a safe and open space, free of judgement and stigma for all members of the MENA region and anyone else who seeks such an environment. We will hopefully be holding many mental health focused events, facilitating discussions and generally providing end of term relief, through relaxed events for all, in our attempt to implement better mental health awareness in our society and to impact our community in a progressive and solicitous way.