At great pains: Ahmed Hankir advocates mental health with art and soul

The psychiatrist known as The Wounded Healer is on a mission to help treat others through theatrical performance and his own intense suffering triggered by the 2006 war in Lebanon

Dr Ahmed Hankir emerged from an acute period of distress to build a successful career as a psychiatrist and now aims to debunk myths about mental illness, challenge stigma and encourage those in anguish to seek help. Photo: Mark Chilvers
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Dr Ahmed Hankir remembers exactly when his life hit rock bottom. In the English city of Manchester, where once he had dreamed of becoming a doctor, he was homeless, pacing the streets and contemplating throwing himself under a bus.

“That’s how low I was, how hopeless I was,” he tells The National. “That was my degree of despair. What protected me was my Islamic faith, because suicide is forbidden. So that’s what deterred me.”

Hankir emerged from the period to build a successful career as a psychiatrist and, now 39, uses his painful past to spread public awareness about the importance of preserving mental health.

His public presentations – a powerful and poetic combination of theatrical performance and the brutal reality of his life – have been delivered to acclaim to medical and lay audiences in 19 countries.

Through the sessions, he aims to debunk myths about mental illness, challenge the stigma surrounding it and encourage those who are struggling to seek help.

He goes by the moniker of The Wounded Healer, a term created by the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who suggested that the best training and motivation for physicians was based on their own personal suffering.

Ahmed Hankir giving a public presentation - a powerful and poetic combination of drama and the brutal reality of his own life - to a thousand medical students in Lisbon in 2015. Photo: Ahmed Hankir

Hankir has had more than his fair share. His night of despair was caused by an intense period of turmoil triggered, he believes, by seeing footage on television of the 2006 Lebanon War, and knowing that he was powerless to prevent the suffering.

None of his course leaders at medical school in Manchester picked up on his inability to concentrate, extravagant spending or wild mood swings that prompted many of the people he thought of as friends to shun him and gossip about him.

Instead, he says, he was asked to leave the course. He kept on sinking until, hungry and with nowhere to live, he was scanning the pavement for lost coins to buy out-of-date bread to fill his empty stomach.

“I was sleepless in Manchester, just walking up and down,” Hankir says. “I was wounded, deeply wounded. My mind was like a kind of tempestuous storm.

“I was ruminating over all of the destruction that I caused. I was burning bridges with people who I thought were my closest companions and, in the literal sense, the bridges in Lebanon were burning. I was chastising myself. ‘What have I done?’ I blamed myself.”

That night was the start of his recovery. The process began when a stranger in the local mosque the next day offered him a bed for the night. A friend who saw him walking the streets and stopped his car to offer a sofa to sleep on was another comfort.

He finally found a semi-permanent home in a damp and derelict house in one of the city’s toughest districts – at the time the centre of gun crime – where he had to face other trials, including a housemate’s death of a drug overdose. But he was on the mend, gradually coming to understand what was happening to him – and learning how his past experiences in the Middle East had informed that.

The Hankir family had been crossing borders and switching homes for decades. His grandfather used to sell ful and hummus from containers slung to his mule in Haifa but joined thousands of others in 1948 forced to decamp to Lebanon after the formation of the state of Israel.

His father, Zakaria, one of 12 children, became the first to break out of the cycle of poverty by winning a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo. Later, he would become known as the People’s Doctor in Sidon, south Lebanon, for not charging his poorer patients.

But in search of work during his early career, he travelled to Belfast, Northern Ireland – another city in the grip of civil strife during the three-decade nationalist struggle known as the Troubles. Hankir’s mother used to say that the only difference between the two cities was that Irish republicans generally gave a telephone warning before they set off their bombs.

Hankir was born there and went with his family to Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, before moving to Britain. “I don’t ever remember experiencing racism [in Ireland],” he says. “But the moment we moved to England, it was astonishing.”

Ahmed Hankir in the late 1980s with his twin brother, aged nine, while Morris Dancing in Dublin. Photo: Ahmed Hankir

He wasn’t yet a teenager when the family decided to return to Lebanon. His mother missed her relatives and the southern village in which her father had an orchard and the sweet smell of jasmine infused the Mediterranean breeze.

Despite the racism he had encountered, the young Ahmed thought of himself as English and was treated as a foreigner on his return. He couldn’t speak Arabic and initially found Lebanon an unwelcoming place of searing heat, bullet-scarred walls and sporadic electricity.

But, set on following in the footsteps of his father, he knuckled down and earned top marks at school with dreams of becoming a doctor.

His British passport made returning to the UK at 17 seem like the best escape from poverty and poor job prospects in Lebanon.

On arriving with his twin brother, however, Hankir discovered that his hard-earned grades amounted to little in Britain. He was forced to start the new millennium working in a series of menial jobs – flipping burgers in a food van run by a Chechen asylum seeker in the rural midlands of England, scrubbing floors and stacking shelves to pay the rent.

The siblings moved north to Leeds, where he enrolled at college to study for qualifications needed to get into medical school. It felt as though most of the officials he met were setting him up to fail because of his background.

The head of year was making us feel like we are these dirty little immigrants, with delusions of grandeur

He says he told the head of his year group that he wanted to become a doctor and she laughed in his face. “She didn’t have to say it explicitly, but tacitly she was making us feel like we are these dirty little immigrants, with delusions of grandeur,” he recalls.

“‘Who do you think you are? You’ll be stacking shelves for the rest of your life’. That’s how it felt sometimes, and so every day was a fight.”

Hankir will never forget the look on that teacher’s face when the results came out. Having secured top marks, he was on his way to medical school.

The subsequent move to Manchester, away from his brothers, highlighted the differences between himself and some of the other students. While he was earning money cleaning floors and making sandwiches, he saw those in his peer group going on family holidays and living more luxuriously.

“Something didn’t feel right,” he says. “I was wounded and I would try to heal that wound by socialising with other people. I was going out. I didn’t drink alcohol or take drugs thankfully, but I was starting to change.”

Mood swings and an identity crisis were symptoms of Hankir’s growing problems. Then he saw the pictures of the 2006 war in Lebanon.

His intense psychological turmoil was triggered, Hankir believes, by  footage on television of the 2006 Lebanon War, knowing that he was powerless to prevent the suffering of its citizens but particularly his family. Getty Images

“I remember – it is etched on my mind – this decapitated baby,” he says. “They pulled this baby from the rubble.

“I reacted. I was indignant, I was outraged. And I developed this episode of psychological distress. And then I was stigmatised.”

Hankir says he should probably have been treated in hospital but didn’t want to be labelled a “madman”. So he suffered in silence.

“If you’re from a minority ethnic background, if you're a Muslim, it’s layer upon layer upon layer of deeply discrediting attributes, triple stigma, the triple whammy, and I was really feeling it. And the medical school was ruthless.”

He was told to leave for a year. He recalls that one night, in his derelict house, he experienced what he describes as his mind’s “insight switch” abruptly turning on, and he “started to cry inconsolably” at the perceived loss of his career and reputation.

Hankir’s recovery took months. When he returned to university, he had to repeat a year, but his focus had changed. His voracious reading earlier in the course got him through the exams and he developed a love of the arts. One classroom lesson that fascinated him involved a discussion about how mental health was portrayed in films.

Ahmed Hankir poses for a group photo while he was working as a doctor in Emergency Medicine in Leeds Hospitals in 2016. Photo: Ahmed Hankir

“I was more interested in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; I was more interested in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. These were the things I could relate to and identify with. I felt empowered and dignified by the humanities.”

After gaining his degree in 2011, he continued his medical training with two years of placements in the British health system, while developing his own mental health campaigning.

His work publishing papers, writing book chapters, giving talks and working for a charity was recognised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

He also changed his lifestyle, running 20 kilometres a day and doing hundreds of push-ups. He felt more confident and energised and able to tap into his experiences to develop his Wounded Healer anti-stigma programme, now presented to more than 100,000 people worldwide on stages shared with celebrities, TED speakers, politicians, premier league footballers, and Nobel Prize laureates.

“That was a big part of my recovery, rehabilitation and my resilience,” Hankir says.

He now exudes a Tigger-like enthusiasm for life and can often be seen in south London, where he lives, sitting on a park bench or whizzing around on his bike. “If you happen to be walking down a street in Brixton close to midnight & you saw a man cycling & singing along to Hotel California out loud & were wondering who that might be,” he wrote recently on Twitter.

These days, Hankir exudes a Tiggerish enthusiasm for life and can often be seen in south London, where he lives, soaking up the health benefits of sitting on a park bench or whizzing around on his bike. Photo: Mark Chilvers

The feed is full of advice, guidance and real-life experience as part of his aim to ensure that broken minds and hearts are treated with the same seriousness as broken bones. “Sometimes,” he writes, “the best thing you can do for your mental health is to treat yourself to a glass of carrot juice.”

Now working at the UK’s largest public mental health centre, in south London, he lets his own experience inform his work. It has made him keenly aware of how many people from ethnic-minority backgrounds are affected by mental illness, and says there is a clear connection between Islamophobia and psychiatric distress.

The experience of that young man is ever-present. He recalls once getting down on his knees to help a struggling cleaner to scrub the floors when he was working on one ward in the capital.

“The look of surprise and gratitude on his face was priceless,” Hankir wrote.

“I’ve tried to link it with how I practise psychiatry today,” he says. “I’m trying to contribute to this cultural revolution, to empower and dignify people who have mental problems. I also want to plant the seeds of hope into the hearts and minds of people who have succumbed to despair.

“But now I’ve got my dream job. What highest honour and greater privilege is there to provide care to people with mental health conditions? I get invitations to give talks worldwide. So, yes, it’s been a journey.”

Updated: August 11, 2022, 8:04 AM