Food, petrol and medicine shortages create mental health crisis in Lebanon

“It’s a huge anxiousness, every day,” says 31-year-old Jihad Abbas, sitting in a dark apartment in central Beirut. “I think about money problems, and the crisis, and that’s it.”

Lebanon is experiencing an economic depression described by the World Bank as one of the worst since the 1850s. Soaring inflation has seen the value of the Lebanese pound plummet, and wages, savings, and pensions have evaporated.

There are shortages of food, petrol, and medicines. More than 80 per cent of people are now living in multidimensional poverty, according to a recent UN report.

“I lost my job over a year ago,” says Abbas. “I was earning good money, but now my savings have almost run out.”

“I don’t know what to do. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t a way out for Lebanon, or for me.”

Zaher Krayem, a psychologist at St George’s Hospital in Beirut, provides therapy pro-bono alongside private practice. He says his waiting list has “exploded” and describes the situation as one of “collective anxiety and depression,” brought on by the economic crisis, ongoing political instability and the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

“There are far more people in need than we can help,” he said.

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Zaher Krayem also told i that cases of suicidal ideation are increasing, while pointing out that there are severe shortages of drugs needed to treat depression, anxiety, and psychosis.

Nour Bazzi, an adult psychologist who works closely with Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese, says the cost of private therapy is prohibitive.

“Most psychologists charge up to 500,000 – 800,000 Lebanese pounds (£250-£400) a session,” she says. “That’s more than most people earn in a month.”

In a dilapidated refugee camp outside the southern city of Sidon, a group of Syrian women aged between 13 and 55 are having a group counselling session with Sara El Bitar, from local NGO Blue Mission. It’s pandemonium, each woman dealing with two or three small children and the electricity coming and going. Problems are overwhelming.

Baydaa, who did not give her second name, is 13, and went to school until it closed due to coronavirus restrictions. It’s reopened, but she won’t be going back – she recently got engaged to a man nine years older. She will be married when she turns 15.

“I’ve tried talking to the family,” says El Bitar. “It’s not good for her health. She might lose her life, or her baby’s life.” Most of the other women nod in agreement – but such an arrangement is not uncommon.

Across the room is 21-year-old Reem al-Katib, who also married at 15, and got pregnant two months later. “Most of the children are registered at school, but they can’t go because the bus is now too expensive,” she explains.

The people of Lebanon are now suffering through an economic and mental health crisis on top of the devastating port explosion on 4 August 2020 (Photo: Contigo/Getty Images)

Subsequently, energetic children have no outlet, increasing the mental stress on their young mothers. Their husbands are either out working, or dead. Several of the women say they have problems controlling their anger. Nour Bazzi says this is common.

“Domestic abuse cases are increasing… people will say ‘I’ll hit my kids, this releases my stress’,” she said.

Despite the best efforts of multiple organisations, the outlook looks bleak unless the economic situation improves. Currently, even if therapy is offered for free, people can’t pay for transport.

“Ultimately, it’s about basic needs,” says Bazzi. “Mental health is not a priority. People need to pay for food.”

“You see children who are meant to be enjoying their childhood… instead, if you speak to them, they are worrying ‘will I have food at home or not, will I go to school next year or not’.”

“We want to help them… but we just don’t have enough resources.”

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