Egypt: The Issue of Mental Health vs Cultural Barrier

Health experts call on the government to increase awareness through nationwide campaigns as struggling people continue to die by suicide.

Sara and her family fled Syria for Egypt in 2012 after the civil war broke out. They have lived ever since in Cairo, where she is studying to become a doctor.

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As a 23-year-old Arab woman with atypical bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mental health issues have troubled her for many years. However, seeking support for her problems has not been easy.

“There’s a lot of stigma and the public health services in Egypt are bureaucratic. There’s so much paperwork and the waiting times are very long. Fortunately, my family could afford for me to go private. But it was hard to convince my mum that I had a problem in the beginning. She didn’t believe me until things got really bad,” she told Al Jazeera over the phone.

Sara, whose name was changed at her request to protect her identity, is just one of many people in Egypt suffering from mental health problems. Between 30 and 35 people took their own lives each month last year, according to the Arab Foundation for Human Rights.

Suicide has been a cause for concern in the North African country for several years. In 2016, the World Health Organization reported nearly 3,800 people tried to take their own lives, which was the highest figure in the Arab world.

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A report in 2018 by the Ministry of Health and Population found one-quarter of Egyptians were experiencing mental health issues.

‘Stepping back in time’

As a result of the high suicide rate, a member of parliament, Ahmed Mahana, has proposed the act be criminalised. If that happens, those who try to take their own lives could be punished with up to three years in a rehabilitation clinic and face a fine of up to $3,200.

Kate Ellis is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the American University in Cairo. She told Al Jazeera by email that criminalising suicide would be counterproductive.

“The outdated and ill-advised proposal of criminalising suicide in Egypt completely ignores the root of the problem and will only serve to increase the deep-rooted stigma in society surrounding the issue of mental health. This proposal, if successful, will see Egypt stepping back in time rather than growing as a country which protects the mental health of its people.”

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Like Sara, Ellis said she believes the government needs to raise awareness of the issues at stake and should focus on challenging the causes of the problem, while improving services.

“Tackling the societal problems that often contribute to depression and suicidality should be the focus of the Egyptian government, in a society where bullying, sexual harassment and victim-shaming are prominent social problems, especially amongst younger generations.

Cultural barriers

Talking therapies are one of the most popular forms of treatment for mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy and other contemporary techniques, however, originated in the West.

As a result, many people in the Middle East and North Africa face difficulties with this type of treatment because of social and cultural barriers. The strategies used are based upon Western scientific research and ways of thinking, and have not been produced with the Arab world or other regions and cultures in mind.

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Online therapy platform Shezlong was launched in 2015 by Mohamed Alaa and Ahmed Abu Elhaz in an attempt to help clients overcome those social and cultural barriers. It matches patients with therapists and primarily serves Arabic speakers. It is the first platform of its kind in the MENA region and more than 100,000 appointments have been booked through it.

Egypt’s forgotten mental health crisis  Al Jazeera English

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By Cleo

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