30 years ago Dr. Abdel Nasser Omar, CEO of Al-Mashfa Hospital, was just beginning his medical career in psychiatry and believed that hospitals in Egypt had the potential to reach a much higher standard in mental health care. Upon visiting many facilities abroad, he dreamed of opening a medical facility here in Egypt that could operate on that level and deliver proper, respectable, high quality care to those suffering from mental illness. In 2005, Dr. Abdel Nasser teamed up with some partners and the dream became a reality in 2011. Last month, Al-Mashfa launched a nationwide campaign to combat the stigmatization of mental illness in Egypt under the name “Stop Shaming Mental Illness”. Cairo West Magazine sat down to get the full scope of the campaign and how people can get involved.
CWM: What prompted Al-Mashfa to launch this much-needed campaign?
DR A.N: Al-Mashfa Academy is part of Al-Mashfa’s operations, and this is an institution that is responsible for psycho-education in schools, universities, and with families of patients. The aim is to provide a better understanding of mental illnesses. We’ve been doing this since Al-Mashfa was founded, but we thought it was time for a bigger nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the general public and to shed light on how much of a burden psychiatric illness is on the patient and their family. This burden of stigma and its consequences really affects patients adversely. We are currently targeting and spreading news of the campaign primarily through social media, but we have also appeared on TV shows and news programs and in newspapers, with plans for more exposure.
How are Egypt’s views on mental illness evolving and changing at the moment?
To be honest, I do believe Egyptians are becoming more accepting now of the mentally ill or those suffering from psychiatric illness – but we are still quite behind considering the real perception. I recently asked a question to a large audience, “Would any of you agree for your daughter or son to marry someone suffering from mental illness?” and nobody answered. So although we have become more accepting of mental illness, we still don’t have the guts to really accept them as a part of our life and our family.
In your line of work, what are the biggest stigmas that face people suffering from mental illness on a regular basis?
The idea of being mentally ill is a stigma in itself, even if it is a minor diagnosis like anxiety or panic attacks. Even those minor diagnoses carry a heavily negative perception in society. Another obstacle they face is therapy itself, which carries a taboo and stigma. Everyone is attacking, from the pharmacist to the parents – “Don’t take this medicine, it will make you an addict,” or “It will destroy your brain and kill your brain cells!” These false statements and ideas really burden the patient and the doctor, thus increasing the stigma.
What do you think are the most important things people need to know to educate themselves about mental illness?
The patient is suffering from an illness, but the patient is not the illness itself. The patient is not schizophrenic or bipolar. The patient is a person suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, just like a person suffers from diabetes. A person suffering from schizophrenia or depression, with the new advances in psychiatry, can be treated and they can live normally with the illness. A paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis, which was once a very serious illness, can be treated with one tablet a night. You can live your life; marry, have kids, work, travel, etc. You have to perceive the illness as an illness, not as a shame, not something that will destroy your life – it is a phase that can be treated. It can happen to anyone, 1 in every 4 people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their life. That is a quarter of the population!
Is it important for those suffering from mental illness to be able to talk about it openly?
Yes, and it is happening more and more. In our events, people come onto the stage and they share their stories about their illnesses. Some are notable figures in the media or society, and some are just your average citizen – could be your neighbor or friend. We’ve had famous people like one of the members of the band Sharmoofers; another was actor Abbas Abul Hassan. So I do encourage people to speak up, because it helps make it a common part of our society and life. Whenever something becomes common, it becomes accepted.
What are some steps we can take to help those suffering from mental illness feel supported and an inclusive part of society?
We have to accept patients as they are, and also recognize and celebrate their success in defeating the illness. By inviting celebrities to share their personal stories and anecdotes, we are able to celebrate and look up to these notable figures and feel like if they can overcome, so can we. We also need to recognize that it can happen to anyone, but it can also be cured and treated easily.
What does the “Stop Mental Illness Shaming” campaign hope to accomplish and how can people get involved?
We would like to reach all corners of Egypt, and more importantly, all social classes – because nobody is immune. This illness is not related to your religious beliefs or a lack of faith, it is not because someone has a weak personality – it is completely biological and genetic. This is the idea I want to convey to as many people as possible.