Addressing the Middle East's mental health crisis

From a lack of psychiatric medicine to a shortage of professionals, wellbeing has taken a battering in recent years

Covid-19 has taken a toll on mental health, particularly among young people. AP
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For good reason, pupils at The British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi wore their clothes inside out last Friday. The initiative, known as “Inside Out Day”, raises awareness about children's mental health to show that what is going on inside might not always be reflected on the outside.

Children need this message more than ever. Not for generations have young people had their lives as badly disrupted. Of all age groups, it is perhaps the youngest that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Physically, Covid-19 posed the least risk to them. Mentally, it could not have been more different. From toddlers not getting exposed to other people in their developmental years, to university students forced into a student life online, it is hard to imagine a more disruptive time. And with that disruption comes serious consequences for mental well-being.

In a survey last year, British mental health charity Young Minds found that almost 70 per cent of 13-25s believed that the pandemic would have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. Reasons cited included bereavement, worries about friendships and Covid-19's detrimental impact on education and the chance of finding a job.

That is in a developed, stable country where high vaccination rates have allowed life largely to return to normal. The UAE has also put an emphasis on mental health and established a dedicated hotline to help those dealing with anxiety related to Covid-19. However, the Middle East has plenty of places a long way off this fortunate position, something that will prolong damaging uncertainty for all ages. But, much like pupils in Abu Dhabi, people are finding ways to help others and start important conversations.

In Lebanon, where a severe economic and political crisis compounds the struggle of the pandemic, Beirut-based well-being start-up Siira is offering weekly online private meetings, moderated by certified professionals, on themes including employment, parenting and relationships. It will provide a lifeline in a country that needs it desperately. The outlook for mental health in Lebanon is bleak. Last year, The National reported on how its economic crisis was leading to severe shortages of psychiatric medicine. One sixth of the population take them, and the danger of stopping medication abruptly was forcing patients to search for supplies abroad.

Nothing replaces the care of trained professionals, something that remains proportionately lacking around the globe when compared to access to physical health care. In Lebanon, there were fewer than 100 registered psychiatrists in 2021. But innovation is providing a powerful stopgap, which could one day offer longer-term solutions. The numbers give hope; global funding for mental health tech start-ups reached $5.5 billion last year.

The most powerful force of all is a non-technological one: rising awareness across the world. A major physical health crisis has by no means crowded out conversations around its mental consequences, and high-profile voices continue to bring up the issue.

And however challenging the times, people are resilient, especially children. Young Minds' survey also found that 80 per cent of respondents believed their mental health would improve once restrictions were lifted. There is light at the end of the tunnel, then, but there is still much work to do to address the fact that it is going to be a far longer one for some.

Published: February 15, 2022, 3:00 AM