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Mental Health Awareness Month: Where Does Egypt Stand?

24 May, 2017
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In the World Health Organization’s (WHO) statistics on the Eastern Mediterranean region, the number of people living with depression is increasing as a result of growing humanitarian crises, conflicts and displacements. As many as 1 in 5 people are affected by depression and anxiety in these settings.

To combat this, the WHO has adopted the Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 as a guide for improving mental health services around the world in the period leading up to the year 2020. Yet, some countries still suffer stigmas, as well as low quality services. We spoke to Lina Shaker, a psychologist at Al Mashfa Hospital, on the conditions of mental health in Egypt.


How would you describe the state of being a psychologist in Egypt?

Mental health awareness has definitely increased. The profession itself is very self-fulfilling as it allows us to help others. It has its bad days, but it is very rewarding at the end when we see our patients get better and regain function in their daily lives.


What is difficult about being in the mental health field?

Sometimes you get affected by the stories. Sometimes, with chronic patients, their progress is very slow or they don’t progress at all, or you don’t see the results you anticipated and that makes us feel helpless. Another problem can also be learning how to draw a line between your work life and personal life, and it can affect your personal life negatively.


What are the most common mental illnesses in Egypt?

Based on what I see at the hospital I work at among inpatients, they would be substance abuse, Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder.


Are patients usually admitted at later stages in their disorder or situation, or does it vary?

It varies of course, and there are voluntary and involuntary admissions. Some of their parents notice that something is off so they get them in straight away at early stages, and others the opposite. Some patients come in at a later stage and still don’t realize that there is a problem.


Why does mental health come with such a stigma?

I would say the media and old movies used to portray mentally ill people as crazy or not fitting in and that created the stigma. In addition, when a person was mentally ill they would relate it to witchcraft or dark magic. Also, the brain is a very hard thing to study so other medical studies were more advanced. So if someone broke their leg they could get that fixed easily. But if you got mentally ill, there was not much info on the matter so people saw it as something abnormal. They didn’t understand it.


What would you improve about the profession in Egypt? Do we need more hospitals?

I don’t think we need more facilities as much as we need more awareness and campaigns to promote the importance of positive mental health. We also need to improve government-owned facilities, allocate more spending to the field and be more selective in who we hire, as well as improve quality. Many in the profession are underpaid. However, most of the privately-owned hospitals have a high performance. 


Abbaseyya is the biggest mental healthcare hospital in Egypt. How good is it?

It is horrible. People just dump their mentally ill in Abbaseyya. They don't want to deal with them so they just throw them there. Some doctors go there and give it their all, but in general it’s horrid. They don't give patients proper care at all. 


Do we have good scientific research in Egypt? Are psychology studies released here?

No, we take research from abroad and apply it to Egyptian society. As far as I know, there has been no advancement.


Has awareness heightened in recent years?

People are more aware than in the past. A number of television series in the past couple of years have emphasized mental health, and that is great. But there should be more in radio and TV shows. The public should have a greater understanding. 


How do you suggest increasing awareness?

Through emphasizing the importance of mental health in schools, especially with parents. At such a young age, children can go through a lot without the parents noticing. They think it is a "phase", or sometimes they notice nothing. It is the school that likely notices. The presence of a school psychologist is pivotal. This is now applied in international schools, but needs to be applied across the board.


If you were minister of health, what is the first thing you would do?

I would definitely focus on government-owned facilities. It is unfair that a patient should have enough awareness and insight to realize their situation, but doesn’t have enough money to seek out a privately-owned facility that would treat their case better.

Photo from Al Abbaseyya Governmental Hospital

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