in Lebanon, the Great Depression

Hiba (1) pulls nervously on his cigarette before crushing it with a gesture marked by irritation and fatigue. The drawn features and brownish bags under the eyes contrast with the smiling face of a wedding picture placed on a pedestal table in this modest living room. The image of this carefree young woman belongs to the past: For a year, Hiba has been through a period of depression.

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With a fragile voice, she tells of her descent to hell. First the loss of the job as Maroun, her husband, two years ago. Then his struggle to maintain his own, at all costs, despite a wage that has been ridiculed because of the economic crisis and the dizzying fall of the pound against the dollar. “Before, we did not live luxuriously, but well”whispers this 54-year-old woman, referring to the outings with friends that the couple sometimes agreed on.

Therapy and drugs have become a luxury

When the company that hired her goes bankrupt, Hiba and her husband throw themselves into a debt spiral. “Our spending has increased as the crisis got worse”she sighs. In the beginning, she tried to look for work and clean up with her neighbors. Her husband multiplies the odd jobs to improve their harsh everyday lives. Only the issuance of currency from his brother, established in Europe, gives them a breath of fresh air.

It is with coronavirus, which removes several of his relatives, that Hiba loses ground. Since then, she has suffered from insomnia and anxiety attacks. To hold on, she clings to the few tablets her brother has brought back without being able to find them at pharmacies where they are unavailable or non-existent. Start therapy? “A luxury” : a session costs three quarters of the minimum wage. And even if she could, psychologists and psychiatrists are overwhelmed.

Half of psychiatrists are missing

“The picture is dramatic, out of 100 psychiatrists who previously practiced in Lebanon, there are only 48 left, the bleeding must be stopped”, laments Professor Sami Richa, Head of the Psychiatry Department at the Hôtel-Dieu de France, in Beirut. In his ward, which is always full, five of the seven psychiatrists have resigned. “We had several crises at the same time, the explosion on August 4, 2020, Covid-19, the economic crisis … everyone is very mentally ill, including the nursing staff”he continues.

Consequence: a sharp increase in cases of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders, addiction that does not spare any age group. For two years, this psychiatrist has seen “a significant increase in admissions of increasingly younger patients between 12 and 14 years”representing “one third of patients”. Professor Sami Richa is also concerned about the increase in the number of suicide attempts. “In the emergency room, we have one a day, whereas it happened once or twice a week before the crisis. »

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This observation is also made by Reve Romanos, a psychologist who monitors the hundreds of volunteers from the NGO Embrace in the Hamra district. This association, established in 2013 to “destigmatize mental illness and prevent suicide” in a society where questioning is still taboo, three years ago opened a hotline to answer emergency calls 24 hours a day. “From 3,000 calls in 2019, we reached almost 10,000 last year, the needs are huge”, she explains. At the end of the line, folks “in search of support because they have a psychiatric illness and no longer have treatment because there is a lack of medicine, others will commit suicide”she notes, pointing out that one in four in Lebanon suffers from diagnosed mental illness.

Mental scars

Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder…, the ailments are numerous but the remedies are lacking. “What we find most in our consultations is the absence of investigation, adds Professor Sami Richa. During the Civil War (1975-1990) we thought about the aftermath. Todayyes, we can not project ourselves after the crisis, it creates a lot of anxiety. »

Worried, the psychiatrist fears that “As after the civil war or the war in July 2006 (with Israel), the lack of recognition of suffering at the national level helps to perpetuate these unrest. There may be a miracle in Lebanon, but it is bad in terms of mental scars not to recognize the wounds of the past . »

Despite this alarming situation in the country, Nour, an Embrace volunteer for more than a year, has no plans to leave Lebanon. “Of course we have a limited role, and I sometimes feel powerless over the fact that I can do no more than tell callers that they are not alone. says this 23-year-old clinical psychology student. But I’m one of those people who’s planning their lives in Lebanon, even if it’s going badly. This is my country, my people, my community. »

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More than two years of crises and tragedies

shattered hope, after the popular uprising in October 2019 – which aimed to overthrow a political class accused of corruption and irreversible for decades – came together with the Covid-19 pandemic and the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020.

The situation has worsened further since the end of June 2021 with the collapse of a subsidy system, which caused shortages of every kind and caused many Lebanese to flee.

This crisis of unprecedented magnitude has caused large-scale impoverishment: Nearly 80% of the population now lives below the poverty line, according to the UN.

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