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The Beirut blast has caused a tidal wave of mental health problems

March 14, 2021 at 9:00 am

Candles lit during a demonstration in support of the Lebanese people following an explosion in the port of Beirut, on 6 August 2020 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

Wael pushed the key into the rusty lock and wiggled it from left to right until he felt the grooves catch and turn. He pushed the door open, kicked off his shoes and stretched out horizontal on the sofa.

The building then rattled with the sound of small nearby explosion, or so he thought. He stood up and pulled open the balcony doors. He stepped into the cool August evening breeze and took a deep breath of the Mediterranean Sea air.

Then everything blew up.

Nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had just exploded in the port of Beirut. Wael’s building was shaking precariously, and a cloud of dust had smacked the 30-year-old in the face, pushing him backwards.

Amid the chaos of not knowing what had caused the blast, or if there might be another one, Wael jumped into action. He grabbed his mask and stumbled out onto the streets of Geitawi, a badly damaged district of eastern Beirut.

Six months on, Wael, who asked to only be identified by his first name, sounds surprisingly calm as he recounts the events of 4 August. His voice is steady, his intonation consistent, and he even laughs once or twice as he recalls moments of tragic comedy in the chaotic aftermath of the explosion.

READ: Lebanon appoints new judge to head blast probe

While outwardly composed, Wael’s consistent, balanced tone belies his true emotions.

As for many of Beirut’s residents, physical wounds sustained by the 30-year-old in the blast have healed in the months since the summer, but the mental scars remain.

“For the first two months after the blast, I was continuously doing volunteer work,” Wael explains shyly down a scratchy WhatsApp call from Beirut.

“There was always something to do, and that helped take my mind off the blast, the economic situation, the pandemic, and everything else that has happened in Lebanon in the last year.”

Staff man the phones of mental health charity Embrace Lebanon, 12 March 2021 [Mia Atoui, Embrace]

Staff man the phones of mental health charity Embrace Lebanon, 12 March 2021 [Mia Atoui, Embrace]

“But slowly, as there was less and less to rebuild, I started feeling a creeping sense of disappointment. I expected more from some of my friends and ended up feeling let-down. I was also emotionally agitated by the lack of future prospects available to us in Lebanon. If I had to label it, I’d say I was depressed.”

Wael said he started experiencing signs of depression in the months after the Beirut blast, but that the explosion was merely a trigger, not the root cause, of the symptoms.

MEMO spoke with five psychologists who explained that the rise in mental health problems in Lebanon cannot be solely blamed on the explosion as other contributing factors, such as the economic crisis and coronavirus pandemic, had also taken their toll on residents.

Co-Founder and President of Embrace, a Lebanese mental health charity, Mia Atoui said: “Across the board the population is reporting symptoms of low mood that could be bordering on clinical depression, but we can’t diagnose for certain yet.”

Preliminary studies, Atoui said, show a rapid increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as other mental health problems, in the wake of the blast.

However, research from a few years ago shows that even then depression and anxiety were the most prevalent mental health conditions in Lebanon.

The recent spike could have started as early as the recent economic downfall, which started months before the blast, and accelerated as a result of the explosion, according to neuropsychologist Natali Farran.

She claims symptoms of low mood and depression started to spread among Lebanon’s population prior to the mass anti-government protests which erupted across the country in October 2019 over a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls and later grew to include demonstrations against the country’s ruling elite and economic state.

She said:

There has always been an epidemic of depression in Lebanon, but it became increasingly clear around the time protests started in October 2019.

“At the beginning of the economic downturn and around the time of the protests, people hadn’t reached clinical, pathological stages of depression, but they were building up towards that. After the explosion, I’m certain that’s where we are.”

“What’s more, many individuals with other mental health conditions have relapsed since the blast and the scarcity of psychiatric medication and the minimal resources for intervention have exacerbated the problem.”

READ: Lebanon protests return after currency at all-time low

Lebanon’s National Emotional Support and Suicide Hotline, which is run by Embrace, received triple the number of calls in 2020 than in the previous year, rising from 2,200 calls in 2019 to over 6,100 in 2020.

Much of the rise has been attributed to Lebanon’s economic crisis, which was compounded by coronavirus-related lockdowns, and led to a spate of public self-immolations and suicide attempts.

However, clinical psychologist Sarah Tannouri, who worked on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) emergency response to the blast, said symptoms of mental illness “just exploded after the blast”.

In the days following the blast she dealt with incidents of uncontrollable anger, low mood, lack of sleep, loss of interest, emotional numbness and short-term memory loss, as well as agitation, fear of going outside and Enuresis (repeated inability to control urination) among children.

Four months after the blast, when the project wound up in December 2020, the population was increasingly suffering from widespread depression and anxiety, she explained, adding that trauma, such as loud thunderstorms and the noise of planes flying overhead, which continue to plague the population, have hampered the recovery by frequently triggering people.

Lana, 25, who asked to only be identified by her first name due to the sensitivity of the matter, said that despite seeing a psychologist for her mental health before the blast, she no longer felt able to talk about her problems.

In Beirut, I don’t want to tell anyone my story because everyone has a worse story

she explained.

“I have a joke that I like to say now: ‘Even my psychologist needs a psychologist!’ because the psychologist I was seeing before the blast lives in the same area of Beirut as me, where everything blew up.”

The Embrace hotline number is 1564 (Lebanon only).

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