“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.
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.
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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