World Mental Health Day: “COVID-19 threatens young Palestinians' futures”

Photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib, Shutterstock

By Wafa Dakwar, Medical Aid for Palestinian’s (MAP’s) Senior Programme Officer in Lebanon

Around the world, the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has turned people’s lives upside-down. The direct and indirect impacts on physical health, livelihoods, education and social cohesion cause immense stress and worry for people everywhere, increasing the need for mental health and psychosocial support. This year’s World Mental Health Day, on 10 October, is therefore an important reminder of the global need for increased investment in mental health.

In Lebanon, the social and economic impact of COVID-19 has disrupted all aspects of our lives as Palestinian refugees. Young people in particular are disproportionately affected. Disruptions to education and social networks during development can have long-term consequences, and so many youth are at risk of resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms or experiencing poor mental wellbeing as a result.

MAP’s Adolescents Health and Life-skills Education project (also known as the Peer Education project), run in partnership with local NGO the National Institution of Social Care and Vocational Training (NISCVT), has been working hard to adapt to these new circumstances. It is helping to mitigate the negative impact of the crisis on youth by strengthening their resilience, positive coping mechanisms, social networks, and providing them with access to professional mental health support.

I recently spoke to Dunia, the Project Coordinator and psychotherapist, to understand more about the impact of COVID-19 on young Palestinians’ mental health and how, with MAP’s support, she and her team are helping them cope with these new challenges.

Hi Dunia, can you tell me how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted young people in general and Palestinian youth in particular?

“COVID-19 has affected the youth in many ways. It has threatened their sense of safety and security and the way they see their future. This is particularly true for Palestinian youth who already had many uncertainties, for example related to whether they will be able to continue their education, whether they will be able to work after they graduate, or even if their families will be able to afford food the next day. The COVID-19 crisis intensified these fears and concerns; young Palestinians started thinking about their future prospects and the inequalities and injustices that deprived them from opportunities that other youth have in Lebanon. Some of them became more frustrated or experienced increased feelings of hopeless that their conditions may worsen.

“Even though the pandemic has affected everyone living in Lebanon, it has had a larger impact on Palestinian refugees as it has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. The economic impact of the pandemic is very harsh on Palestinian refugees, with many families having lost access to the scarce income-generating opportunities that were previously available to them. 

“Families were struggling to secure the basic needs for their children before the crisis, so you can only imagine the situation now when they are not working and are spending all their days in overcrowded houses. Sadly, increasing violence and social problems are not unexpected.

Can you tell me more about how the project been supporting youth during the pandemic?

“The peer education teams are working with young people [who previously attended in-person sessions before the pandemic] remotely to keep them engaged and with access to professional support when needed. We are preparing videos on the topics we used to discuss with them in person, and are supporting them to deal with confinement-related stress and ideas on how to spend this time in a productive manner.

“We often hear that these online activities have helped young Palestinians feel that there is one thing that was not interrupted by the pandemic, and that there is someone thinking of them, even though they can’t be physically present at the centre.”

What I especially like about the project is that the activities are run by young people themselves, who you train and support by to become ‘peer educator’ volunteers. How has the work of peer educators been during the lockdown period?

“The peer educators have been exceptional: very active, motivated, and creative. They always come to us with ideas and suggestions, many of which are excellent. They are very enthusiastic and pushing the project forward with all their strength. Without a doubt, the efforts and energy of the peer educators contributed to the project’s success during this difficult period.”

Has the pandemic adapted the project in any other ways?

“Following the coronavirus lockdown, the need to work on stress and anger management increased. Youth have been exposed to a major disturbance in their lives that has put them under pressure and in a state of uncertainty where they don’t always understanding what is happening or what will happen next.

“The peer educators were vocal about their need for a stress management and conflict resolution training as they were witnessing an increase in violence and problems in their community. So we adapted the capacity building plans for the year to focus more on these topics.”

Thank you for speaking Dunia, and all you and your team are doing to support young Palestinian refugees

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