The Stigma Surrounding Mental Illnesses in Middle Eastern Households

By Perla Saadeh

Cover picture taken from Mental Health Commission of Canada

A survey conducted in 2003 in Morocco showed that almost 50 percent of Iraqi adults are subjected to mental illnesses that vary-of with the most common being depression and anxiety . A multitude of studies performed came bearing the facts that 20 % of Saudi Arabia’s population suffers from depression (Primary Car Centers, 2002) , 97.5 % of children in Gaza Strip have PTSD (Gaza Community Mental Health Programme), and one out of five Lebanese people suffer from mental illnesses (WHO, 2001).1 However, scarce are the people that seek help and are treated. That varies from a multitude of reasons extending from internalized and externalized prejudices, conventionalist images, as well as the traditions, beliefs, and norms which middle eastern people consider of high value.

Knowing that the middle east has diverse cultural traditions and beliefs, religion made it easy for mental disorders to be accompanied with shame and disgrace. That was achieved when a substantial number of people regarded mental illnesses as God’s way of inflicting punishment on those who have sinned. Moreover , others believe that people suffering from such disorders are possessed by evil spirits. Nowadays, the most widely held belief regarding mental illnesses is that they are the doing of the evil eye. Most people are convinced that the evil eye causes misfortune, while others perceive it to be a supernatural force that allows a hostile gaze to inflict harm upon others. This has aided in marking the people suffering from these disorders as having gotten what they deserved and being a disgrace.

Moreover, cultural, and societal norms play a leading role in shaping the stigma related to mental health. Middle eastern people and especially Arabs value public image as well as maintaining social standards. Given that mental health has not been so easily dealt with in the past, middle eastern people do not regard the importance of treating these disorders but perceive them as shameful. Statistics from Caron Treatment Centers have shown that eight out of ten teenagers believe that parents play the leading role in shaping the pressure they deal with.2 In any case if a child’s mental capabilities are limited, countless households regard them as incompetent and thus increasing the stigma revolving around mental disorders.

Limiting opportunities for people with mental illnesses is another reason as to why this stigma has been around for so long. Institutional stigma limits job opportunities making people afraid of even speaking up about seeking mental health care, for fear of losing their job. Institutional stigma not only exposes patients to externalized prejudice, but also contributes to the internalized oppressive preconception. Patients feel as though they are lacking in certain areas of their lives due to the boundaries that specific disorders create. In return, patients address mental health problems with secrecy and consider it taboo.

Knowing how middle eastern people view mental illnesses, people are reluctant to study psychology. This creates absence and scarcity in the availability of people qualified to treat mental disorders. This in turn results in people keeping their issues to themselves and unwilling to seek professional help, further increasing the rates of mental health problems in the Middle East.

Mental health is a vital part in everyday life by which it is linked to the quality of life led, starting with a person’s emotional wellbeing, societal factors, productivity, financial stability, and relationships. That is why it is crucial for this generation to help breakdown the stereotypical stigma that surrounds mental illnesses. Raising awareness using campaigns and other means can help end this stigma. The process of educating people on the importance of mental health allows them to be perceived in more acceptable manners and can decrease the high rates of mental disorders in the Middle East. As Glenn Close said “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation.”

1. CSIS (center for strategic & international studies

2. Caron Survey Shows Parents Lack Awareness About the Extent and Consequences of Pressure They Put on Teens


Hidden Afflictions: Mental Illness in the Middle East, October 15, 2010

Top Ten Reasons Why Mental Health Is So Important, November 24, 2021

Parental Pressure and Behavior May Put Teens at Risk for Substance Use and Abuse Say Experts from Caron Treatment Centers

Suggested avenues to reduce the stigma of mental illness in the Middle East, June 23, 2014

Edited by Khadija Hojeij
Copy edited by Daniella Razzouk

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