For as long as any living Lebanese person can remember, despite its resilient and jubilant energy, the country has always been something of a pressure cooker. Whether it be Lebanon’s historical role as the adopted homeland for its dispossessed neighbors or its current political impasse which brought thousands of its frustrated citizens onto the street in mid-October, sustained periods of calm remain achingly rare. For citizens and refugees alike, the lack of access to medical services, especially mental health, remains another area demanding significant reform.
In seeking to address the lack of public knowledge of/access to mental health information and support, ACTED is supporting grassroots initiatives targeting vulnerable communities in northern Lebanon.
As part of World Mental Health Day 2019 and with support from ACTED, Himaya Daeem Aataa (HDA), a local non-governmental organization, hosted a public awareness-raising event in Zgharta, the second biggest city in Northern Lebanon.
The purpose of the event was to help address the stigma surrounding mental health and raise awareness on the importance of self-care and recognizing early signs of mental health problems.
Such actions are necessary to help fill the gaps left by the Lebanese healthcare system, which suffers from a significant lack of coordination while also coming under pressure from the needs of Syrian refugees who now make up almost 25% of the population. The dense distribution of Syrian refugees in underserved areas which already struggled with their own challenges, adds to the urgency of such efforts.
Several public and private institutions active in the health sector joined forces with HDA: Four teams of young volunteers from the Zgharta School of Nursing were on hand to offer free basic health consultations, including measurement of blood pressure, blood sugar test, etc. When there was a need for medical follow up, the community members were referred to the Meryata Primary Healthcare Center to access specialized services for free.
After undergoing the medical procedure, attendees were also invited to a free mental health consultation offered by psychotherapists at the Lebanese American University (LAU) Medical Center-Rizk Hospital in Beirut.
At the end of the event, Dr Jocelyne Azar from LAU Medical centre conducted an awareness session on “Mental Health and Non-Transmittable Diseases”, attended by numerous community members. The session focused on the linkages between chronic diseases and mental health disorders – and the ways in which each condition can have an influence upon the other.
The session raised many questions from the audience such as how to deal with anxiety and depression. The attendees were encouraged to reach out to specialists to discuss more in details about the mental health issues faced and to receive qualified advice on ways to effectively improve their wellbeing.
Only a few of the attendees who came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds admitted to possessing prior knowledge on the concept of mental health. In both Lebanese and Syrian society, cultural taboos have traditionally surrounded mental disorders, inhibiting people from recognizing their condition and seeking assistance. The stubbornness of such trends is reinforced by a lack of mental health training for primary health care workers and social workers who are often confronted directly with issues related to mental health, and the rareness of interactions between the primary care and mental health systems.
Although the public discussion around mental health in Lebanon has been increasing in recent years, there is still a long way to go in providing comprehensive care: The cost of mental health interventions remains high and affordable to a limited public. In addition, the distribution of psychiatric hospitals remains concentrated in the largest cities thus preventing access to persons living in rural areas.
The event organized by HDA on the occasion of World Mental Health Day was only one of many grassroots initiatives that took place country-wide, and that contributed to a national dialogue that can only be sparked through local engagement. Thanks to ACTED’s support, in addition to HDA, six other local non-governmental organizations and three Social Development Centers will implement community-based projects over the coming months, aiming at improving health and psycho-social support service delivery in underserved communities.
I came here today because I haven’t checked my health in a long time. I am very busy with my children and I don’t have time to go to the doctor, we save money to pay the rent. I am very glad I had the opportunity to do so today. I also learned that it is important to care about mental problems as much as for the physical ones. Both aspects are linked, and I will call the phone numbers I was provided with if in the future I feel very stressed, or down