Mental Health Stigma & How to Combat it

By: Shahd Abu-Hussein

“Mama and baba, I think I might be dealing with depression.”

“Don’t say that. بعد الشر.”

بعد الشر.

Its denotation is “may evil be far,” its connotation, however, is closer to “God forbid.”

In this context, "بعد الشر," exemplifies all the issues in Arab culture that surround mental health, specifically, the aspect that deals with mental illnesses; its literal and figurative meaning both refer to the illnesses in a manner that is shameful, almost as if having one makes you inferior or less than. Making it worse, not only are mental illnesses themself stigmatized in Arab culture but the act of seeking help as well, as centers dedicated to helping those suffering are automatically labeled “مستشفى المجانين,” the hospital for the psychologically insane.

To the more traditional Arabic individuals, mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, are strictly limited to Western societies.

"احنا معندناش الحاجات دي هنا."

"We don’t have this kind of stuff over here.”

In spaces where mental health isn’t stigmatized, it isn’t even acknowledged to begin with.

The clear and recurring factor causing the problems is the absence of education on the topic.

It’s not “مستشفى المجانين,” it’s a therapy center for those with an illness that any person is susceptible to.

Oh and, “this kind of stuff” does exist “here.” In fact, it exists everywhere. In 2001, the WHO revealed that “1 in 4 people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.” Even with a staggering and alarming statistic, the prevalence of mental disorders is somehow not comprehensible for the Arab society, so hopefully, this one will serve as a clearer representation: a 2020 study conducted in the UAE found that “57.2% of participants suffered from at least one mental disorder.”

Do you still think “[that] we don’t have this kind of stuff over here?”

Often, mental health issues manifest themselves in ways that are dismissed, which again, is due to the lack of knowledge on it. For Arabs, particularly women, diet culture is popular and extremely common. In many cases, it grows into an obsession with healthy eating, which is actually considered a psychiatric illness. To be more precise, it classifies as an eating disorder: orthorexia. In such instances, the psychological facet is completely ignored, for what began as a positive intention, turned into an eating disorder that they were no longer in control of and could not help but fixate on the food they were eating.

In addition to all this, not only is the environment Arab societies have created for mental illnesses unimaginably toxic, it perpetuates and breeds them. Toxic masculinity is not restricted to Arabs but it is greatly emphasized amongst them.

"استرجل. مافيش ولاد بتعيط."

"Man up. Boys don’t cry.”

Quite fascinating how what we say to our boys is identical to Western cultures, but when it produces the same effects, like bottling up feelings that can potentially lead to isolation and even depression, we then resort to saying their depression is invalid because it only exists in the West.

The misconception lies in that an Arab man is solely strong, dominant, and powerful, there’s no space for being vulnerable because it doesn’t line up with the agenda his society has set for him. Feelings however are exactly that, vulnerable, therefore, he cannot showcase them, or else that emasculates him in everyone’s eyes, and further reserving all-things-emotion for the women.

At this point, it goes without saying, but mental health in its entirety is heavily stigmatized when it comes to the Arab community. Arab teenagers have already created immense progression in the way which mental disorders are viewed by talking about them openly and even sharing their personal experiences. In homes where others were taught that this is a topic that is shunned, those aware teach them that it’s not “عيب” or taboo.

That being said, true progression lies in the uncomfortable conversations, those not with your friends, but those with authority, as usually, they are the ones feeding the stigma; educate your parents, explain to them how it’s okay for your brother to cry or that they shouldn’t shut him down when he expresses his emotions verbally.

On a larger scale, conventionalized language needs to be adjusted. The problem with calling places for mental health help “مستشفى المجانين” is legitimate and those partaking should be conscious of their language. That minuscule change alone could make reaching out for help a possibly easier decision to make for those who require it; it validates the idea that having a mental disorder does not equate to insanity and that it’s alright to ask for assistance.

Mental illnesses are not “شر (evil)” and those who have them are not “مجانين (crazy),” they are impeccably strong individuals who deserve to be treated as such by the Arab world.

Works Cited

Ibrahim Mahmoud and Coumaravelou Saravanan, 2020. Prevalence of Mental Disorders and the Use of Mental Health Services among the Adult Population in United Arab Emirates. Asian Journal of Epidemiology, 13: 12-19.

Newman, Tim. "11 Myths about Mental Health." Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 5 Oct. 2020,

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