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Tuesday 20th March 2018

On Mental Health Day: Libya's Political Crisis Leads to Suicide


Abdelsatar Hetieta

Thu, 10 Oct 2019 13:48 GMT

Mental health issues in Libya are assailed by a lack of professional help, in a country split between warring factions, and a refugee crisis.

Gamal, 47, an employee in the Libyan Ministry of Education, has been suffering from hallucinations and insomnia for two years. He shuts himself away, and his relatives fear that he may commit suicide one day, as many other Libyans have done, in a country that has been ravaged by civil war since 2014.

Gamal and his family were terrorised and traumatised by a number of armed bandits near Surt, while travelling from Tripoli to Benghazi in 2017. Since then, he has been suffering from a phobia, yet he has never had the chance to go to a medical centre to get treatment, because of the ongoing war.

Gamal is like many thousands of Libyans who suffer from phobias and mental disorders, triggered by the chaos which has engulfed their country.

Hundreds of illegal migrants also end up with mental and psychological disorders, as they face tragedies in Libyan territories, during their journey to Europe, which is usually doomed to failure.

Like many other Libyans, Gamal tries to hide his mental suffering from his friends and family by pretending he is fine. But when it comes to driving, he cannot keep up this pretence, as he is no longer able to drive his car after what happened to him in Surt in 2017.

 Stigma of Mental Illness

In a conservative community, like the one Gamal lives in, it's hard for someone to admit that he/she suffers from a mental or psychological disorder. And it is usually claimed that cases of suicides were a "natural death," as was the case last summer when a girl hanged herself in the northern city of Baida, and her family claimed she died because of black magic.

"There is not much official information about the number of people who have taken their lives in Libya," says Abdel-Meneim Zaidy, the head of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights.

"World Health Organization (WHO) issued statistics in 2016, which indicate that 807 persons in 10,000 die by suicide," Zaidy added.

WHO, however, highlighted the danger that around 8,000 persons in the world commit suicide every year, whose age ranges between 15 to 29. That is why it decided to make “suicide prevention” the main theme of World Mental Health Day 2019, which is observed annually on October 10th.

In July 2017, Gamal was driving his car from his home in Tripoli to his in-laws' in Benghazi, which is 1,000 km away from the capital. He was accompanied by his wife and four children.

When he arrived at Surt, a city that had been recently liberated from Isis, and that lies 400 km away from Tripoli, he was stopped by five armed men positioned at a checkpoint.

It was hard for Gamal to remember these events without breaking into tears.

"The checkpoint was controlled by Isis and the armed men asked me to get out of my car," Gamal said in a voice choked with tears. "It was around 9 am when one of the armed men began to interrogate me, with other men pointing their guns at my head."

Gamal was questioned about sensitive religious issues, and the armed man issued the ruling that he was not pious enough and this entailed according to the bandit, that his marriage was null.

Gamal's wife and four children were sitting scared in the car, not knowing what would happen to their father or them.

The armed man ordered Gamal to repeat some words which would allegedly put him to the right religious path, and Gamal could not but repeat them after him.

"Now, you're a faithful believer, but still your marriage is null because you married your wife when you were an unbeliever," the armed man told Gamal.

The men kept harassing Gamal and his family at broad daylight, until he finally told him that he had to re-establish his marriage on the right basis.

The armed men ordered his panicked wife to get out of the car, while the children kept sobbing out of fear.

Gamal felt so worried about his little ones, when he found himself standing before his wife, and forced to repeat some words to "correct" their marriage.

Finally, the armed men seized all his money and mobile phones before letting him go. He was really thankful to God that neither he nor his family was killed, which frequently happens at that spot.

Gamal did not resume his journey to Benghazi, he went back to Tripoli. He stopped being able to go to work and chose to live in isolation.

Women Refuse to Seek Help

Dr Hussein Abdallah, the manager of a medical centre in Tripoli, told 7Dnews that Libyans in general, especially women and girls, do not choose to see psychiatrists.

"Families believe that going to a psychiatrist is a shame," Dr Abdallah said. "Girls, in particular, believe that they risk their marriage chances if they seek psychiatric help."

According to Dr Abdallah, those who committed suicide were those who went through tough experiences and, for one reason or another, were not allowed to speak about it, due to the conservativeness of the society that attaches so much attention to "reputation."

"Some armed militias abduct employees and girls and photograph them in indecent scenes to blackmail them, which is one of the reason that leads to suicide," Abdallah said, adding that over 30 Libyans, within the 17 to 50 age bracket, committed suicide for similar reasons, in the first half of 2019.

Last month, residents of Tajoura, north-western Libya, found an 18-year-old girl dangling from a tree with a thick robe around her neck.

 According to police, the girl's family reported her disappearance last July. Investigators believe that it's highly likely that she was kidnapped by armed militias in the chaos-hit region.

Most of the psychiatrists and psychologists are currently busy with treating traumatised non-Libyans, especially the African migrants who pass by Libya on their way to Europe. Doctors without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimates that around 6,000 refugees and migrants are now kept in official detention centres run by the Libyan interior ministry.

A psychologist working for the non-profit organization in Nargila Centre, which houses tens of illegal immigrants, said that most of them suffer from deep psychological issues because they were exposed to sexual abuse and physical torture.

Libyan officials and physicians have recently been calling on citizens not to feel embarrassed about psychological support if they feel in need of it.

The National Centre for Disease Control, run by Dr Badr Eddin Nagar, has already laid out a programme for mental health, in cooperation with the World Health Organization.

Yet, the country still needs a proper infrastructure to make such programmes achieve support for those who need it. And there is a shortage of psychiatrists all over Libya, which number very few, despite a population of over six million.