In a small meeting among friends, and for the first time in her life, Sara found the courage to ask, “Do you know a good psychiatrist here in Damascus? I need to see one.” That was six months ago.
Based on the advice she received, she started to consult a good therapist in the Syrian capital, who also referred her to a specialised psychiatrist. Now she goes to the clinic twice a month and feels much better.
“If I hadn’t plucked up my courage that day to have that conversation with my friends, I would have been caught up in the same vicious circle of insomnia and anxiety, maybe for the rest of my life,” said 30-year-old Sara.
For about three years, and after witnessing many disturbing events amid the violence of the Syrian war, having been displaced many times, fleeing the battles in the suburbs of Damascus, Sara started to have troubling symptoms, which developed quickly. She could not sleep for days, used to have nightmares, and became very aggressive with others, even her family and close friends.
She worked as a secretary for a private company and was aware of her pressing need to consult a therapist, which was not easy for her at all. “In Syria, we consider those who go to psychiatric clinics as “crazy”. I remember once telling my mother about this issue, and her reply was that it was better to solve these small and unimportant problems myself, without speaking about them in public, to avoid any possible embarrassment.”
After following her mother’s advice for a long time, Sara finally felt that she could not stand it anymore, and this was when she decided to talk about her issues, no matter what the repercussion would be, but “it was easier than I had thought”, she said with a shy smile.
“Being Mentally Ill? What a Stigma!”
Until now, Sara’s parents still do not know that she goes to see a psychiatrist. They would not accept this at all she explained. She is right, going to a psychiatrist in Syria still has a negative connotation, even after eight years of brutal war that have taken a terrible toll on people inside and outside the country.
There are no official statistics of how many Syrians suffer from mental disorders. However, some specialists estimate that at least 3% suffer from severe disorders, and another 15 to 20% suffer average to mild symptoms of mental illness.
This corresponds to the numbers that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria published on the occasion of World Mental Health Day on October 10th, stating that during crises, one person in five suffers some kind of mental and psychological disorder.
However, even if this means that millions of Syrians are now experiencing various mental conditions that they need to deal with on a daily basis, going to see any kind of specialist who might help in mitigating the effects of those conditions, is still not acceptable to many.
“I think this is my sixth year of having terrible headaches, mood swings and insomnia. Nevertheless, I haven’t considered consulting any specialists, and I am trying to solve those problems on my own,” said Lina, who is 45 years old, and lives with her husband and two children in one of Damascus’ central districts.
Lina gave two main reasons for this opinion. First and most importantly, it is not acceptable at all in her social circles, meaning her family and friends, to be a mental patient who would later be described as “insane” or “psycho.”
“It might be important to pay attention to our mental health, exactly like our physical health, but in our society, individuals need to take care of their spiritual and mental needs by themselves,” explained Lina, adding that this self-treatment can include taking breaks, eating good food, going out with friends and trying to avoid all sources of stress and anger.
The second reason is the lack of practising psychiatrists in Syria. The total number is currently 70, according to official figures. There is also a lack of confidence in them. “Honestly, I do not trust going to a stranger and telling them about my personal problems. We still don’t have this culture here in Syria,” Lina said.
Better than Before the War
Not everyone thinks like Lina about mental health. Samer, who is now a graduate student in the faculty of media in Damascus University, has been seeing a psychiatrist regularly in Damascus for around two years now. He thinks that talking about this nowadays has become much easier in the Syrian community.
“Taking into consideration the nature of Syrians and the society here, I cannot say that talking about our mental health in public is totally acceptable, but it is definitely now more common than in the days before the war,” Samer said.
This change, although it is small, is for one reason in Samer’s opinion. “After eight years of war, mental disorders are now widespread among Syrians, albeit with different symptoms. So how can we ignore such clear and obvious phenomena?”
The 28-year-old said that many of his friends are now openly speaking about having problems such as depression and trauma and are looking for good therapists and doctors. “They even post this on social media, which I consider a notable development,” he said.
Samer said that talking about mental disorders is still considered shameful and has its own stigma within Syrian society, “But nothing will go back to what it was before. The war has changed us all, and one of those changes is how we handle our problems on all levels.”