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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 January 2021

‘People are definitely not OK’: Lebanon struck by self-immolation and other suicide attempts

Weight of economic crisis, trauma from Beirut blast and stringent lockdown could increase risks of self-harm, experts say

Beirut's skyline. Getty Images
Beirut's skyline. Getty Images

A man died after setting himself on fire in Lebanon, while two others attempted suicide through similar acts over the past seven days, as the country spirals deeper into economic crisis.

A Lebanese taxi driver set fire to his car and sat inside the vehicle last Wednesday, sustaining burns to his legs, a witness told The National.

He was taken to a nearby hospital in Burj Al Barajne, a southern suburb of Beirut.

Local media reported the man complained about financial concerns before the incident. He was treated by the Lebanese Red Cross.

Last Friday, a Syrian man died after setting himself on fire in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.

The country's National News Agency reported he had serious financial problems.

Another man tried to set himself alight on Tuesday during a protest by bus and minivan drivers in Tripoli, after he said he had received a fine that he could not pay. Demonstrators stopped him just in time.

They were demanding to be allowed to work until the start of a more stringent lockdown on Thursday.

“We are receiving similar cases every day, not necessarily of people setting themselves on fire but people hurting themselves because of the economic crisis,” said Georges Kettaneh, secretary general of the Lebanese Red Cross.

Psychologists and NGOs said the mental health of many citizens and residents has been deteriorating since the onset of a severe economic crisis in 2019.

The deadly blast that struck Beirut port last August had intensified that distress for many.

Lockdowns are very difficult on individuals. There is loneliness, an economic impact, the fact that you cannot see loved ones

Dr Pia Zeinoun, clinical psychologist

Lebanon entered a renewed lockdown this week, with 11 days of 24-hour curfew starting on Thursday.

The strict measures are set to compound the financial effects of the crisis as most shops will be forced to close, with supermarkets and restaurants operating on a delivery-only basis.

But the psychological effects of the crisis and the explosion have been met with a lack of government response, activist groups said.

Pia Zeinoun, a clinical psychologist and vice president of Embrace, an NGO that manages the country’s suicide prevention hotline, said the number of callers had increased in the past year.

"We have seen an increased number of calls after the August explosion and since the onset of the economic crisis," Dr Zeinoun told The National.

Between August and November 2020, the hotline received 2,239 calls, nearly triple the number it received in the same period of 2019.

The Embrace helpline is operated in collaboration with Lebanon's National Mental Health Programme, launched by the Ministry of Health with support from the World Health Organisation, the UN children’s fund and International Medical Corps.

The programme works with mental-health organisations to improve the well-being of Lebanese and ensure access to psychiatric medication and services.

Dr Rabih Chammay, who leads the NMHP, told The National that economic crises can weigh heavily on the public.

"People will feel so desperate that they may attempt to harm themselves," Dr Chammay said.

Almost 30 per cent of callers from August to November last year said they had either socio-economic concerns or were suffering distress from the blast.

Experts believe that new lockdown measures will affect more people.

"Lockdowns are very difficult on individuals," Dr Zeinoun said. "There is loneliness, an economic impact, the fact that you cannot see loved ones.

"The number of new cases during the previous lockdowns were not as high as they are today. Now, more people fear what is to come in Lebanon."

But the recent case of self-immolation and other attempts are uncommon, she said.

A new nationwide lockdown that began last week has not caused a significant surge in calls to the helpline so far, but Dr Zeinoun said people living in Lebanon are “definitely not OK".

Research by Embrace found that 55 per cent of 400 Lebanese surveyed declared themselves "sad" every day for one month after the blast.

Lebanon has been hit by a severe economic crisis since 2019, partly caused by a shortage of foreign currency and decades of widespread corruption and mismanagement.

As a result, 55 per cent of the nation's population has been pushed below the poverty line, almost double the rate of the year before, data released by the UN in August showed.

The country has been run by a caretaker government since August, when prime minister Hassan Diab resigned after the blast.

Leaders have stalled government formation over disagreements on posts in prime minister-designate Saad Hariri’s new government.

Politicians failed to draw up a plan to deal with Lebanon's financial collapse, leaving many people with no option but to leave the country or rely on NGOs for support.

Psychological help, financial aid and political reforms are needed to improve the mental health of Lebanese in the long term, Dr Chammay said.

"If you have a broken sidewalk and people are falling and breaking their legs, how do you help?" he asked.

"You have to fix the sidewalk while helping those who are already hurt. Neither solution works alone. The same applies for the situation in Lebanon."

Caretaker Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni said in a tweet on Monday that he gave instruction to allot 75 billion Lebanese pounds (equal to $8.6 million at the black market rate) to families facing severe hardships from the coronavirus lockdown.

A nearly deserted main street in downtown Beirut is pictured on January 10, 2021, with the municipality building on the right, after the country went into a three-week lockdown earlier this week in a bid to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. AFP
A nearly deserted main street in downtown Beirut is pictured on January 10, 2021, with the municipality building on the right, after the country went into a three-week lockdown earlier this week in a bid to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. AFP

During Lebanon's earlier lockdowns, Mr Diab had also promised poor families cash and food assistance, but Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that those efforts had failed.

"The government’s plans to provide food assistance never materialised and it repeatedly delayed promised financial relief, succumbing to political bickering over how to distribute the meagre aid,” the report said.

Embrace opened a clinic in Beirut in August that receives more than 200 people a month, but local NGOs say that more government action is needed to provide further support.

“Other governments have offered stimulus packages, unemployment benefits," Dr Zeinoun said.

“People need all of these things. They need housing, food, education. This will help to remove a lot of stress.”

While government action is crucial to address the issue in the long run, experts stressed that raising awareness and reaching out to loved ones in distress is vital to detect and prevent self-harm and suicide.

"There is no easy solution," Dr Chammay said.

"We have to talk to people around us who are unwell and encourage them to speak to trusted others about their difficulties and emotions or call the national lifeline and ask for guidance, encourage them to reach out. We all have a role to play."

The Embrace suicide prevention hotline can be contacted on 1564 inside and outside Lebanon

Updated: January 15, 2021 04:11 AM

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