While news coverage of Palestine in the Western media often focuses on the nation’s political and economic challenges, few reports have discussed their mental health impacts. Mental health disorders are found throughout the world–the World Health Organization reports that depression alone affects over 120 million people and is one of the world’s leading causes of disability. However, mental health disorders are much more frequent in the context of deep sociological trauma and financial crisis–both of which are common in the West Bank and Gaza.
The World Health Organization has found that “stress-related disorders” and other mental health problems are most often found among women, children and adolescents, while domestic violence has increased due to the stress of occupation, high unemployment and men’s inability to provide for their families. A 2011 study by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found that 30% of ever- married women in the West Bank and 51% of ever-married women in Gaza experienced violence from their husbands in the prior 12 months; 28% of children between the ages of 12-17 in the West Bank and 45% of those in the Gaza Strip reported experiencing physical violence from their parents during the same period. Psychological abuse from parents is even more widespread, affecting close to 70% of children throughout Palestine.
According to a recent report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UN OCHA), 18,701 people in the West Bank and Gaza have received mental health and psychosocial care so far in 2012. However, the agency estimates that up to 73,000 Palestinians who suffer from mental health disorders cannot access appropriate services due to lack of funding. The burden of mental health disorders is particularly acute among children in Gaza, as they are regularly exposed to violence from Israeli military operations and “community or household tensions.” A 2007 study of 229 adolescents in Gaza found that 69% had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 95% experienced anxiety and 40% exhibited symptoms of depression. Given Gaza’s deteriorating health care infrastructure and the stigma against seeking mental health treatment, it is unsurprising that most of the adolescents surveyed were also engaged in “undesirable coping responses.”
Improving mental health in the West Bank and Gaza is imperative for individual health and educational achievement, as well as Palestine’s economic development. As the World Health Organization notes, “positive mental health is linked to a range of development outcomes and is fundamental to coping with adversity. On the other hand, poor mental health impedes an individual’s capacity to realize their potential, work productively, and make a contribution to their community.” But in the face of such overwhelming barriers to positive mental health, what can be done?
“Counseling is new in Arab culture. People don’t want to be seen as crazy, so they avoid therapy. But in a group there is less of a stigma. A woman can’t easily go out alone in our culture, but here she brings a friend. We show them how to cope and change their mood and gain equilibrium.” –Saher Yaghi, a Mind-Body counselor in Gaza
Thankfully, interventions to reduce stress and improve mental health are beginning to take hold in Palestine. The Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP) provides mental health services with an emphasis on children, women and victims of torture at clinics throughout the Gaza Strip. In addition to providing counseling to Palestinian prisoners, GCMHP manages a Women’s Empowerment Project (WEP), which provides rehabilitation and psychological care for survivors of domestic violence. Students at a volunteer-led yoga studio in Ramallah have found that yoga helps them cope with daily struggles stemming from their homes and from their environment. Thousands of women have also learned “mind-body” techniques to decrease anger and family tension and regain a sense of control over their environment, which they teach to their husbands and children. The program has made a significant and long-term impact on participants’ levels of stress, as well as symptoms of depression and hopelessness, and is now spreading throughout Gaza.
We would like to hear your thoughts…do you think the number of people estimated to need mental health care is accurate? How does stigma affect people’s decisions to seek mental health treatment? How do you cope with everyday stress? We welcome your comments!
–Jamie Johnson and Elizabeth Arend