About Stigma and Other Barriers to Mental Health CareHaya Halaw
This series uses a first-person account to challenge the stigma associated with mental health issues. Using narrative form paired with illustrations, we will identify signs of psychological distress and take a closer look at our own attitudes toward mental health.
About Stigma and Other Barriers to Mental Health Care
On a scorching summer in 2012, I was laying on the sofa with my limbs trembling. I hadn’t slept in days and was trying my best to hold back tears while listening to my family in the kitchen trying to guess what was happening to me. Nothing but echoes of bombing and gunshots, Homs was a ghost town.
I keep recalling that period in my life, and for years it haunted me. The severe anxiety and stress, the daily panic attacks, and the hopelessness were strangling me. It felt as if I was losing my grip on reality and I couldn’t for the life of me see the light at the end of the tunnel. Like a zombie, I was pushing myself every day to do the bare minimum of daily tasks. I still remember the confusion my family and close friends felt about my state. It never crossed my mind, nor anyone’s, that what I was experiencing were in-fact panic attacks. Even the one doctor we managed to find, a general practitioner, shrugged his shoulders and told my parents to not worry, I might be scared and stressed. A psychiatrist was never mentioned nor was any discussion about mental health.
After weeks of severe anxiety and panic, I was prescribed sleeping pills, which were of no help at all. I was losing sleep and weight and unable to see further than the horrible reality I was living. Like many, I was told I was weak: “you are crazy!”and “it’s all in your head.” My feelings were ridiculed and dismissed, and I couldn’t pull myself together no matter how hard I tried. There was no escape from the loop of horror that was running in my head 24/7.
It was traumatic. War is traumatic. I wasn’t losing my mind and I didn’t want to get used to the situation. The majority of Syrians had their lives stolen from them and we were watching our country burn rapidly in front of our eyes. It took me a long time to process war and the psychological effects it left on me, but I was still very hesitant to seek professional help even after I left the country.
Who must not be named
I wasn’t brought up in a society that normalized talking about mental health or seeking professional help. It is taboo. Growing up I only heard about it in the media, and what an awful representation that was. Characters were drawn to be insane and untreatable, almost as if to frighten the public from that who must not be named: mental illness.
The pure ignorance and carelessness surrounding the subject is still present in the Arab communities, and if, “God forbids,” you mention any sort of psychological struggle, you’ll be met by dozens of personal opinions from “you don’t read enough Quran” or “you should pray” to “it’s just a phase.” A mentally ill person is a person who lacks faith in God, I was told a couple of times, another very bold statement in a very religious culture.
Many in the region try to live up to narratives of strength, which is not to be phased by any sort of illness. So, our struggles remain private as speaking about them would undermine that narrative. Telling a complete stranger about your ”darkest secret” is most definitely a no! Not to mention the misconception about medication, its side effects, and the fear of addiction.
Knowing that a large number of Arabs live in poverty and are incapable of paying for medication and treatment helps explain the low number of active psychiatrists and therapists in the region and the difficulty in finding a good, trustworthy doctor. In a region chewed up by wars and conflicts, this lack of mental health providers is a recipe for disaster.
2019 was a turning point for me. I finally took matters into my own hands and after searching for a good psychiatrist and reading many reviews, I booked an appointment and got my diagnosis. It was an “Aha” moment. The diagnosis led me to believe in myself and what my body was trying to tell me. I spent years tiptoeing around the problem and I didn’t want to look it in the eye. It was, and still is, frowned upon. Even after my diagnosis, there were times I had to prove my anxiety and depression to everyone in order to earn my diagnosis and medical prescription.
The hardest pill to swallow is that I kept waiting for people around me to change, listen closer, and see the signs, but the change never happened because the answer was within. I was and am the one suffering and I know what I am experiencing more than anyone. I don’t want my illness to have to be validated for me to ask for help, and if I don’t believe in the stigma, why not take action and make a change? No matter how much I explain and describe my symptoms, no one knows them better than I do.
Without medical help, I wouldn’t be able to be productive and creative, to laugh and communicate, to sleep and eat properly, or to have any sort of normality in my life. My illness didn’t stop me from enjoying the moment, but preventing my brain and body from getting help did. So now, I no longer welcome any unsolicited opinions or ignorance about the matter—they only held me back from healing and progressing—and I am forever thankful for medicine and science for giving me a second chance to live some sort of a happy life.