By Maged Gendy
A feeling of shock and nausea took over my whole body. It was early afternoon on a bright sunny day when I had received the call. I could feel the horror and shock in my mother’s voice as she told me that one of our Egyptian family friends had murdered his wife. As the news and details poured out over the following weeks, I started to understand why a seemingly normal husband and father would commit such an atrocity. On the surface he seemed to be a relatively stable person battling one too many personal issues. Yet, there was a deeper hidden ailment that led to tragedy. At a young age he was diagnosed with schizophrenia that was never properly treated. In a culture that holds strict, traditional values, the concept of mental health is often overlooked. Traditional social structure combined with a lack of education creates an aura of stigma that significantly trivializes the importance of understanding and treating psychological illness. In fact, one only has to look at the universal Arabic word for mental illness, ‘magnoon’, which directly translates to ‘crazy’ to understand mental health perception. The fear of rejection and embarrassment that stems from such stigmas has created a culture that promotes hiding mental disorders and prevents proper treatment.
As the Middle East is gripped by turmoil and conflict, millions of families are suffering from the instability and turbulence in the region, which has taken a serious toll on mental health. Recent studies focusing on the prevalence of mental disorders in the Middle East have shown an exponential increase in depression and post-traumatic stress (PTSD), which is particularly high among women and children.1 Moreover, systematic reviews on the prevalence of mental disorders in the Middle East have concluded that over a third of children and teenagers in Gaza exhibit symptoms of PTSD.2 The attention and resources allocated to educating and treating mental disorders, however, remains largely absent. For example, Egypt, a leading country in the Middle East dedicates a mere 2% of its total health expenditure to mental healthcare .3 A recent evaluation of public perception of mental health in Iraq found that there are approximately only 100 psychiatrists for a population of 30 million.4 As the next generation of children suffers from untreated mental illnesses, there will be serious consequences on ensuring sustainable and stable communities.
While increasing the number of mental health services may seem like the answer, there are still critical cultural barriers that impact access to care. In Middle Eastern countries with strong traditional, cultural, and religious views, people may not seek adequate help. This issue persists primarily in lower income families where there is a lack of education and access to information, resulting in people turning to religious leaders. There is pervasive ideology that symptoms associated with psychological disorders may be caused by supernatural beings. Schizophrenic or multiple personality disorder patients are thought to suffer symptoms due to supernatural causes, such as ‘evil eye’ or ‘shytan’ as in the devil. These supernatural and religious views are ingrained in the culture and society making it difficult to approach this epidemic.
There is no easy way of approaching this silent crisis. Raising awareness about mental illness and educating the public about signs and treatments may lead to positive transformation of attitudes about such disorders. Additionally, medical universities in the region need to work with religious leaders to dilute misconceptions surrounding mental health and to encourage treatment. Physicians should recognize and identify these disorders in their patients and help to reduce the stigma associated with seeking care. Without intervention, this epidemic will reach levels of global proportion with dangerous consequences. Reducing stigma is not just about saving our family friends from tragedy, but about saving an entire generation to ensure lasting peace and stability in the region.
Born and raised in Egypt, I immigrated to the U.S. 10 years ago. I completed my bachelor’s in biology and psychology at University of Illinois at Chicago and aspire to continue my education in psychology/neuroscience.
- Charara R., Forouzanfar M., Naghavi M., Moradi-Lakeh M., Afshin A., Vos T., Daoud F., (…), Mokdad A.H. The burden of mental disorders in the eastern Mediterranean region, 1990-2013. PLoS ONE. 2017, Vol. 12 (1), No. 0169575
- Sadik, Sabah et al. Public Perception of Mental Health in Iraq. International Journal of Mental Health Systems. 2010, Vol. 26.
- World Health Organization and Ministry of Health of Cairo, Egypt. WHO-AIMS Report on Mental Health System in Egypt. 2006.
- Dimitry, L. “A Systematic Review On The Mental Health Of Children And Adolescents In Areas Of Armed Conflict In The Middle East”. Child: Care, Health and Development. 2011, Vol.38.2, pp: 153-161.
Photo from Tumisu via Pixabay: CC0 license