World Mental Health Day 2021: Working towards mental health care for all in Gaza

This year’s World Mental Health Day serves as a stark reminder of the mental health crisis facing Palestinians in Gaza. Just as many of the physical injuries caused by Israel’s 11-day military offensive in May remain unhealed, so do the deep psychological and emotional scars among Gaza’s two million inhabitants.

For most people in Gaza, May was not the first devastating bombardment they had experienced. A child of 15 has lived their entire life under blockade, prevented from travelling out of a 41 by 10 kilometre strip of land that is one of the most densely-populated areas of the world, and enduring a protracted economic and humanitarian crisis. They have also lived through repeated, devastating Israeli military operations in 2008-9, 2012, 2014 and 2021.

Chronic instability and pervasive violence and destruction have placed a staggering and inevitable toll on mental health and wellbeing in Gaza. Even before the bombardment in May, 95% of children in Gaza experienced symptoms of deep psychological distress, including feelings of depression, hyperactivity, aggression, and a preference for being alone. Around two thirds reported persistent nightmares (63%) and difficulties sleeping (68%). Furthermore, the UN estimates that 198,000 children in Gaza are at risk of moderate or severe mental health conditions and 242,000 adults are in need of access to mental health and psychosocial support services.

As Mahmoud Shalabi, Senior Programme Manager with Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) in Gaza, has explained: “Palestinians in Gaza are often described as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But I think that it should be called ‘continuous traumatic stress disorder (CTSD)’ as they are living in a protracted emergency of perpetual violence and blockade.”

The theme for World Mental Health Day this year this year is ‘Mental health care for all: let’s make it a reality’. Sadly, despite these worrying needs in Gaza, there are significant gaps in the services needed to support the population. Only two percent of Gaza’s already diminished healthcare budget is dedicated to mental health and psychosocial support. One 2015 study of Gaza’s mental health system concluded: “Mental health in Gaza is underfunded, human rights protection of service users is absent, and human resources, service user advocacy, and mental health training are limited.”

This is why MAP works with our local partner, Friends for Mental Health (FFMH), to promote better access to mental health services. FFMH is a group of community activists and volunteers who provide high quality mental health and psychosocial services, delivering support sessions, including over WhatsApp; counselling services; and summer camps for children. They also support service users and their families to advocate their rights and tackle taboos around mental health.

Safa*, who lives in Gaza City, was referred to FFMH by a mental health clinic in the west of Gaza, as she was experiencing depression, isolation and psychological pressures related to her economic conditions. Like many people in Gaza, Safa relies on humanitarian assistance provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and faces challenges in accessing basic services like clean water and electricity.

She attended one-to-one sessions with FFMH and took part in recreational activities. “I felt like a new person after attending the sessions,” said Safa. “I feel relieved of my personal pressures, my personality has changed for the better and my family relations improved,” she said.

The reality of “mental health care for all” remains a long way off in Gaza. The work of organisations like FFMH is essential to ensuring access to mental health and psychosocial support for the population, particularly while drivers of distress – including the illegal closure and blockade and other violations of international law – remain unaddressed. Together, we are working to ensure all Palestinians can live their lives in good mental health and dignity.

You can support essential mental health services in Gaza by making a donation today.

*Name changed to protect identity.

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