Hidden Afflictions: Mental Illness in the Middle East

Middle Eastern governments battle staggering rates of mental illness.

Lebanon commemorated World Mental Health Day this month, but the Lebanese have little to celebrate. According to a 2001-2003 World Health Organization (WHO) survey, nearly one out of five Lebanese suffer from mental illness—yet only four percent of those seek treatment.
Lebanon’s challenges are hardly unique in the Middle East. A 2006- 2007 survey that the Iraqi government conducted with the WHO found that 17 percent of Iraqi adults suffer from mental disorders; a 2003 Moroccan national survey put the figure for that country at nearly 50 percent. Depression and anxiety disorders are by far the most common mental illnesses in the Middle East. A 2002 study conducted at primary care centers in Saudi Arabia suggested that up to 20 percent of Saudis are depressed. In conflict-prone Iraq and Palestine, post-traumatic stress disorder is rife. The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme recently concluded that 97.5 percent of children aged 10-19 exhibited symptoms of PTSD in the Gaza Strip.
Despite the magnitude of the problem, Middle Eastern governments devote little–if any–of their health budgets to mental health care. Among the individuals who seek treatment, many face misdiagnosis at the hands of primary care physicians who are often overworked and who have little training in mental health.
Strained public health budgets and stigmas against acknowledging mental illness have prolonged these deficiencies. Governments have started launching public awareness campaigns about mental health, but providing resources and facilities for treatment will be equally important.

This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.