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Egypt raising awareness about mental illness

The Ministry of Health and Population has launched a campaign to raise awareness of mental illness and to challenge the social stigma surrounding it.
Patients at the Hospital for Mental Health in Al-Abassiya of Cairo draw during an art lesson as part of a treatment program which works on strengthening their abilities to integrate into society August 5, 2010. The hospital has around 1,500 patients from all over the governorates in Egypt, according to hospital staff. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY) - GM1E6851Q8I01

CAIRO — During the month of October, hospitals across Egypt affiliated with the General Secretariat of Mental Health, under the Ministry of Health and Population, are participating in Al-Saraya al-Safra, a campaign to raise awareness about mental health services and to counter the stigma surrounding mental illness. The Arabic “al-saraya al-safra” means “yellow palace,” which is a colloquial Egyptian term for a mental institute. The secretariat oversees and controls all services related to mental health in the country.

Khaled Mogahed, spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Population, announced the campaign in a Sept. 24 statement, saying, “Eighteen mental health hospitals will carry out the campaign, which coincides with World Mental Health Day, which falls on Oct. 10 every year.”

There are no official statistics on the number of mentally ill people in Egypt. The latest figures issued by the general secretariat state that 516,000 people were admitted to mental hospitals across the country in 2016, compared to 444,650 in 2015. The figures, however, only reflect the number of people admitted to hospitals affiliated with the secretariat, not the overall number of the mentally ill in the country. Muhammad al-Mahdi, professor and former head of psychiatry at Al-Azhar University, said in a press statement in April 2016 that the extrapolated number of mentally ill people in Egypt ranges between 15 million and 18 million people, if figures for Egypt are in line with percentages from sample populations.

Discussing Al-Saraya al-Safra during a Sept. 24 phone interview on “Raie Aam,” on TeN TV, Hatem Nagy, director general for mental health administration at the general secretariat, said, “The name was chosen to stir the curiosity of people to ask about mental health.” He also remarked, “The campaign aims at raising awareness among citizens about the quality of services that hospitals can offer and the health care possibilities available. It will also introduce people to the symptoms of mental illnesses and preventive methods in addition to challenging the social stigma surrounding mental health issues.”

The efforts in this regard are part of a strategic plan by the Ministry of Health and Population to improve the secretariat's services for the treatment of mental illness and addiction. The plan was launched in 2015, and one of its key goals includes efforts to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health problems through social awareness campaigns that improve social literacy involving health, highlight treatment opportunities and push for early diagnosis of psychological disorders. 

Abdul Rahman Hamad, a doctor who works at Al-Abbasiya Hospital in Cairo, which is participating in Al-Saraya al-Safra, told Al-Monitor, “Staff trained by doctors in secretariat-affiliated mental hospitals are implementing the campaign, and people are being directly contacted, whether by the hospitals or in public places, like clubs, schools and libraries, to raise their awareness of mental illnesses and highlight the importance of respecting mental patients in society.” The contacts are being made through seminars, public discussions and film screenings.

Hamad added, “The campaign is a positive step, but it is not enough to raise awareness about mental illnesses and make the idea of them more tolerable to citizens. Therefore, coordination with the media is vital to support such awareness campaigns.”

On eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, Hamad said, “The media platforms must be open to support efforts in this regard, and celebrities must participate in the campaign, as they constitute an element of encouragement that broadens the campaign’s reach.”

Hiba Abu al-Nil, psychology professor at Bani Sweif University, told Al-Monitor, “The campaign is positive because it aims at changing the negative image of mental illnesses among citizens. The stigma surrounding mental health mainly stems from stereotypes and misconceptions.”

She added, “The stigma is partly created by the negative way mentally ill patients are portrayed in the media. So, the focus should be on changing this image and presenting media content that respects mentally ill people and introduces society to the symptoms and preventive measures.”

Despite having a positive opinion about the campaign in general, Abu al-Nil takes issues with the campaign’s name. She noted, “The name ‘Al-Saraya al-Safra’ carries negative connotations for Egyptians, because it is usually used sarcastically to refer to mental illnesses. She believes this will negatively affect how people view the campaign.

Abu al-Nil also touched on the importance of raising awareness among teenagers and children, saying, “We must begin at a young age to prevent illness by making its existence known, thus contributing to lifting the social stigma.” Nil called for an official and accurate count of mentally ill patients in Egypt. She said, “To be able to treat mental illnesses effectively, there must be an accurate count of patients to implement strategies and initiatives linked to fighting the disease based on sane foundations and accurate figures.”

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