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A Sick City: Beirut and Mental Health

“Beirut is suffocating in every way possible,” pleads, T.S., a young woman who has bipolar disorder.

The countless articles by orientalist writers about an over-romanticized Beirut couldn’t be further from the truth. We see phrases like “Beirut kills” graffitied on its walls. The Internal Security Forces have admitted that suicide has increased in recent years; on average, one person commits suicide every three days in Lebanon. Six people committed suicide during the first 20 days of 2016 alone.

In my own social circle in Beirut, most people I know are or have been on psychoactive medication. Is it the political system? The economy? Is it the incompetence of mental health practitioners who prescribe us medication 15 minutes into our first session? It is important that we identify some of the key factors in Beirut that greatly impact our mental well-being.

Beirut’s Housing Crisis

Having a home, a safe, well-maintained space to relax and be alone of among loved ones, is essential for one’s well-being. The average rent for an unfurnished, one-bedroom apartment in Beirut is $700 per month, but minimum wage still remains at $450 per month.

“Beirut is horrible in so many ways, especially when you’re dealing with anxiety. People say that to deal with your illness, time is the most important factor,” says T.S., “I think it’s space and not time; Beirut does not give you space. When my mood swings start, I know that every social interaction will influence me, so I know I have to be alone, but I can’t afford a room in Beirut, so I have to share my room.”

Water and electricity are a luxury. In the best parts of Beirut, the power cuts at least 3 hours a day. If your building has a external generator, you’ll be paying double the electricity bill. If not, you’ll have to get by without electricity. When summer ends, water shortages are common in most households. However, if you happen to be a student at a nice university, you can use the gym showers.

Having a home also means having a space that ensures security and safety. However, with politicians’ thugs hanging around on many streets, having to deal with harassment becomes part one of one’s daily routine.

Security is also knowing you won’t lose your home any minute if your landlord decides so. Tenants who pay old rent are under threat of losing their homes. Poorer renters are forced out of their neighborhoods by real estate developers to make way for richer and more profitable tenants. Gentrification, a form of class war, is an ongoing crisis in Beirut.

The mismanagement of the housing market in Beirut has had terrifying effect on the well-being of citizens. Involuntary relocation shatters every meaning of security.

Education

Be it our expensive and elitist private universities, or the incompetent, low-tuition ones that camouflage money-laundering, or the infamous public Lebanese University, the education we are getting is sub-par. Rather than stimulate us intellectually and inspire us to think critically, it only prepares us for our imminent subordination to the job market. Many of us continue to live life with unrealized potential, because we take up any job in order to survive, leaving us stuck in an infinite loop with no space for us to explore careers we truly aspire to have.

We go to school because our parents want us to be doctors, engineers or lawyers; this is what society wants them to want for us. These are the fields where the capital is. We go to American-system universities that boggle our brains with standardized testing. We go to French-system universities that drain our physical and mental abilities because of their long schedules. And we go to the public Lebanese University to be faced with utter disappointment and disgust, seeing party flags on campus and incompetent professors, hired purely based on connections rather on merit. But what choice do we have? We need a degree to get employed and to ultimately survive.

Employment: an ongoing crisis

Even with a minimum wage as low as $450, unemployment is a huge problem.

Senior year students and fresh graduates are expected to do internships before considering applying for a full-time job. Internships in Lebanon are hardly ever paid; if you’re lucky, the employer might provide partial funding for transportation.

The enthusiasm, creativity, and hard work of interns is depleted by companies and organizations that put profit over equity. They tell you that they’re giving you experience and exposure. You take it, knowing it’s new-age slavery, because you need it to get a full-time job in the future.

You get the job. Corporations will lie about your salary to pay fewer taxes. NGOs will lie about your salary to grant-givers; they will receive what is supposed to be your salary on paper, and you will get half of it, if not less. And then you struggle with your employer to get registered in social security, which is your absolute right per Lebanese labor law. Eventually, you will get it. Health matters because it enables productiveness; you need to be healthy enough to get work done. That does not exclude Lebanon’s expensive health insurance.

There is a high unemployment rate in Lebanon, and this is definitely to the benefit of employers. Here’s why: they believe that with a little training, most workers can be replaced. We spend a huge chunk of our lives taking orders from an employer under threat of being fired, just because we want to survive. We are bossed around all the time with no control over our economic situation. Anxious at work? Here’s a stress ball! Profit matters more than being ethical, and it definitely matters more than the mental well-being of the worker. The threat of being fired is a great tool to scare workers from organizing to improve their salaries and conditions in fear of losing their jobs.

And that is, of course, if you are a Lebanese citizen. Most foreigners, mainly nonwhite ones, are not even allowed to work in Lebanon without being under the Kafala sponsorship system. 1 in every 5 people who commit suicide in Lebanon is a foreigner, mostly house helpers from Africa or South Asia.

This capitalist and neoliberal system that Lebanon adopts is depriving us of our psychological needs. It is a system that breeds misery and depression.

 

A comic from Rgheef Sokhon
A comic from Rgheef Sokhon

Society and Politics

Patriarchy, which goes hand in hand with capitalism, also has an immense impact on mental health. T.S. says, “Patriarchy is the main factor that I think contributed to my mental health. I’m very tired of patriarchy being normalized in what is supposed to be my safe space and that is why I don’t want to go to therapy anymore. Therapy doesn’t acknowledge politics. Therapy tries to make you cope with your environment rather than solving your problem, but I’d never want to cope with or accept patriarchy.”

“I feel hopeless and helpless in the face of the political and economic system and this has always been a huge enabler of my depression,” says Zeina Ammar of Rgheef Sokhon, a comic website that focuses on mental health. Her comics are a way for her to channel her frustration towards stigma. The stigma on mental health in Lebanon is embarrassing to say the least. While doing my BA in psychology, people would ask me why I chose a field where I would be dealing with “crazy people”. The shame of saying you are seeing a therapist stops many people from seeking help. However, fighting the stigma with Facebook statuses and flowery images is not enough. Zeina says, “fighting the stigma is consuming the energy and financial resources of all those who are fighting for the cause, as individuals as well as organizations. Meanwhile, there are more systemic problems that are not being addressed by anyone, like the accountability of mental health practitioners and affordability of care. I wish organizations would direct their attention towards that. I am not sure how effective their campaigns against stigma are (especially that it is not measurable) – and these cost a lot of money that could be better spent.”

Another individual effort is Mental Health Lebanon. Kareem Rifai, founder of the Facebook page, says he started the page he wanted to help other people. When something scares you, you’re going to research it, and I wanted to give people the right information. “I tried searching for support groups in Lebanon online but I couldn’t find any. Doctors are not trained to deal with mental health cases; if you go to a physician and you tell them you have a stomach ache when you go to university, they give you a pain killer and tell you not to eat at the cafeteria, they don’t realize that it might be anxiety that is causing your stomach to churn. We had a civil war; most people here have PTSD and they pass it onto their children, our generation. The consequences of the war are still strong and ongoing. My page is an outlet for me, and I want to support others.”

The political system is so toxic that every time we try to protest against it, politicians go out of their way to fail us. Unfortunately, many movement leaders fail us, too, by having agendas similar to those of politicians we protest. We have become so disheartened and disappointed to go back to the streets and ask for our rights.

However, the good news is that we might be able to do something about all of this. Self-directed activity is essentially empowering. And what’s more important is community-directed activity. Organizing and having solidarity towards each other is fundamental to our well-being. We can defy Beirut’s capitalism by aspiring for workers self-management and collective ownership; building an empowered community and being part of it is definitely emancipating.

Finally, there’s a lot that the government can do.  I tried contacting the ministry of public health over 5 times to get information on their newly established mental health sector, but they never responded.

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Article by: Sarah Shmaitilly

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8 Comments on "A Sick City: Beirut and Mental Health"


makeway89@gmail.com'
Guest
Anon
November 3, 2016

Great article!
I agree whole-heartedly with everything you said and I left Beirut for these reasons. I am now living in a big city and I feel as empty as shell. People are robots here, they walk fast, are afraid of eye contact and interactions are shallow. Join clubs they said, talk to you colleagues they said!! It’s not working. With all the shit in beirut, at least I had some friends, family, a support system. Sure now I have more money in the bank, space for myself, electricity, I have a nice apartment and a good job but money isn’t keeping me warm when that aweful sense of emptiness and dread set it. I guess what I’m saying is that home is home and I wish I could be with my own kind and also live a decent life.. it’s become the inevitable question for our generation. Which is more important?

Admin
Admin
November 4, 2016

Thanks for reading! & I agree. Stay tuned for Part 2.

lunajimii76@gmail.com'
Guest
Mira
November 4, 2016

The dilemma i feel all the time with friends.. should we leave or should we stay?

joefeltit@hotmail.com'
Guest
J
November 6, 2016

Sometimes one must stop romanticizing nationalism and make logical decisions. In this case it is leaving.

marta.raks@gmail.com'
Guest
aljamiada
November 5, 2016

I really agree with the author. I am living here since one year ago and I realize how sad faces, that tell me about despondency and exhaustion, can be seen everywhere, even walking around Zeituna Bay.
I am european and I miss here a more cohesive society around problems involving equally to everyone: health, education and pollution, for example.
I wonder if it would be possible to call a general strike, beyond religious faiths, neighborhoods or other considerations, showing the rules the people’s weariness.

joefeltit@hotmail.com'
Guest
J
November 6, 2016

Hehe, you have room to learn, my friend.

drsuehosn@yahoo.com'
Guest
Sue
November 6, 2016

So well written and said.. reality on the ground .. a must read for all..

nadim-haddad@hotmail.com'
Guest
NH
November 7, 2016

Many people will tend to agree with you. But think of it, yes, we are tired of the same old reasons for us to hate the country, our basic privileges are not even provided, and whichever way you look at it, things are not getting any better.

In the eyes of the pessimist, as clearly stated in this article, we are living way below the basic standards and Beirut has become a hopeless city.

In the eyes of the optimist, Beirut is still and will always be a throbbing city with the best nightlife, the best education system, the best food, hospitality and will always export the greatest minds in the region.

In the eyes of the realist, they are fine with status quo, still see Beirut and Lebanon as held back by the regional conflict surrounding us.

…But the thing is, even in the eyes of the strongest pessimist, there is still hope that Beirut will once again be where it is supposed to be. Even when everybody seems to be complaining about the electricity, the rent, the traffic, the garbage and all the things that make you hate the country, they somehow find a way to accept it and move on. Whether its a glimmer of hope they are clinging to, or whether its a complete disconnection of whats really going on, these people have CHOSEN to stay. The way I see it, the vast majority of the educated people who complain have a choice, but most of them chose not to leave, and the majority of people who do eventually leave, start counting down the days to come back for a visit. I don’t live in Lebanon anymore, but i can safely say, that among the large community of Lebanese graduates who moved abroad for a better opportunity, who always say what a shit country we have and how they made the good decision of leaving, will go back to Lebanon in a heart beat if they get at least something close to what they are getting now regardless of the electricity, the garbage, the water, the rent and all that. Proof? The real estate sector in Lebanon thrives on Lebanese foreigners…So if everyone who is so pessimistic about this country really hated that country as much as they say they do…Why are they investing so much in real estate? Everyone, from the staunchest pessimist, to the strongest optimist who graduated from Beirut and now lives abroad is there on a temporary basis, clinging to a hope that his country will eventually be back to where it was 40 years ago.

So yes, we do have problems, every single person knows what the problems are, we are tired of hearing the problems, lets not use the problems anymore as the reason we are leaving Lebanon, because they’re just reasons to justify our actions of leaving. Let’s talk solutions, the existing political stagnation is the root of all the problems in Lebanon. The solution is with the people, the very people that said “fuck it why vote in the municipality if the same people are gonna come again.” That is not how you solve a problem, with a 17% turnout in Beirut, a group of intellects managed to get 40% of the votes in Beirut. That is on a mere 17% turnout! I am not an optimist, nor a pessimist, just an opportunist and we do have an opportunity in 6 months to change things. So instead of talking about the same problems over and over and over again, can we just for once talk about solutions?