Mental Illness in the Streets is a Tragedy, Especially for Women

National Yemen

mentally ill man

Asma al-Mohattwari

Mentally ill people in the streets are a continuing tragedy in Yemen. Streets, neighborhoods, and cities have become home for many of them. The phenomenon is a cause for concern for all Yemenis. Unfortunately, nothing has been done to reduce it and suffering is increasing, especially among females.

Ayah, a secondary school student, said that in the early morning she and her three neighbors go to school by foot. One day they saw a mentally ill man was walking on the other side of the street. Suddenly he crossed to their side. They were afraid but continued walking. Sadly, the man slapped Ayah in her face, took off her veil, and took her school notebook.

Ayah was yelling and crying while her friends were shouting, but no one was there to help them. Ayah stopped going to school and told her father everything. “I will not go to school until the police find him,” she said. Her father and brothers searched for that man and finally they found him and took him to the police station.

Another incident happened to Faten, a secretary. One day she left her work and headed to the bus station to return home. While she was walking, a well-dressed man stopped her, flirted with her and offered her money. She shouted at him and left. She thought that he was one of those men who harass girls on the streets. His appearance didn’t indicate that he was ill.

The next day, she went to her job and was shocked to see the same man sitting on the sidewalk, doing the same with all women who passed in front of him. Faten was so scared and told her workmate, who discovered that the man was from a very high-class family but had a mental illness. He took him to his family and told them, “Keep your relative at home because we will not allow him to harass our sisters and daughters.”

Lack of awareness of mental illness in Yemen leaves patients scattered everywhere. The number of Yemenis in need of psychiatric treatment is around 2,000,000. Dr. Mohammed al-Tashi, a psychologist at Al-Amal Hospital, divided such individuals into two categories: neurotic individuals, who are believed to reach around 1,500,000; and those with some form of psychosis, believed to reach around 500,000.

At odds with the high number of patients is the low number of available, trained psychologists. Their number doesn’t exceed 50,000, which translates to one doctor for every 40,000 patients. Dr. Ali Whban, a clinical psychology specialist, argued that Yemenis are in real need of psychologists and that there should be more training for specialist doctors.

Yemen lacks a sufficient number of psychiatrists, neurologists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses, not to mention hospitals, effective diagnosis techniques, and psychotherapy. “Only five hospitals serve Yemen’s 22 governorates,” said Dr. Al-Tashi.

Chief among mental illnesses in Yemeni’s hospitals is paranoia. Dr. Wahban said that paranoia is especially dangerous because affected individuals may, generally speaking, be relatively coherent and systematic, which often allows them to deny that they are ill.

The rates of mental health issues are increasing daily. A security report stated that in the last three years, suicide rates have increased by 52%. The report showed that the number of suicide cases reached 765 over that time. 624 people committed suicide by using firearms, and 141 people used other means, such as hanging themselves.

“A suicide is usually the result of compelling ideas, depression, deficiencies or failure, leading people to feel that committing suicide is the best way to rid themselves of life’s problems,” Dr. Whban said. Poverty is also one of the largest factors contributing to suicides and mental illness, as feelings of injustice and oppression can increasingly foster hostility in individuals towards others.

A lack of education and misunderstandings regarding mental health are also contributing factors. Many Yemenis don’t possess enough knowledge about psychological illness and medicines to seek effective treatment, and often continue to believe that only crazy people seek psychiatric care at hospitals. Some prefer to receive traditional treatments.

Some Yemenis look down on people who seek psychotherapy often considering them crazy and avoiding interactions with them. As a result, many would-be patients confine themselves to their homes rather than seek treatment outside. Still others believe that those in need of therapy have ‘jinn’ inside them. Such notions often push the affected to go to sheikhs, not therapists, to receive answers or treatment.

“There is no doubt that psychiatry in our country is facing several problems. The first is ignorance and superstition. There must be scientific knowledge and an awareness of psychological factors, and we must take note of the sources of mental illness. The rumors and negative thoughts regarding psychiatry are unacceptable and harmful,” said Dr. Najat Saem.

According to Whban, patients with psychological problems present a danger to their communities if they don’t receive care early on. He said that psychiatric services must be provided in schools, universities and workplaces. “We need to have guidance in three processes: structural, preventive and therapeutic processes.”

Yemen continues to require increased awareness and successful methods to address the problems and difficulties associated with mental health, a basic element of a healthy society. Dr. Whban said the media has a big role in fostering mental health awareness in all segments of society.