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Loulwa Soweid 01 Mar 2015

Breaking the Silence: Lebanese Bloggers Speak Up about Struggles with Psychological Disorders

One in every four Lebanese individuals will suffer from a mental illness in their lives according to a 2008 study led by Elie G Karam from the Saint George Hospital University Medical Center. However, those grappling with psychological disorders in Lebanon remain the victims of judgmental attitudes and erroneous myths, among them “that mental illness is the result of a weak personality, that people can ‘just snap out of it’ if they want to, that they are violent and unpredictable and that they can never recover,” says Farah Yehia, a mental health advocacy coordinator at the department of psychiatry at AUBMC and an executive member of the Lebanese mental health NGO Embrace. Yehia, who is currently conducting a national study on this stigma in Lebanon, emphasizes that, as a result, “it is common in our society that people still feel ashamed to seek help for a mental illness.”

Despite the stigma associated with psychological disorders, two courageous and determined bloggers have recently kick-started personal initiatives discussing their own battles with mental illness.

Raja Sabra, 26, launched his blog, Raja’s PUNic Attacks in October 2014. “I had always wanted to go public with my disorder because I was talking to anyone who would listen, who I felt could relate to it, or who I could help in some way,” he says.

Incorporating humor and unique puns into his regular posts, Sabra simultaneously offers serious and amusing accounts of his life dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and social anxiety, tackling topics such as dating, psychiatric sessions, explaining OCD to others, and the emotional turmoil that goes along with it. Sabra describes the writing process as “liberating,” though he tells Beirut.com that at times he needs to take a step back when recounting episodes in order to prevent himself from reliving the anxiety all over again.

“I knew that some people might think I was lying to try to get attention, and that there was a fear of opening up and being misinterpreted, but I didn’t care. My goal is to break the stigma, and to take the burden off other people by taking the first step.” And thus far, comments have been only positive, with Sabra receiving public praise on his blog and Facebook page, as well as personal messages and phone calls from both friends and complete strangers thankful for putting a voice to their own struggles.

“It makes me feel so happy to know that I reached someone and that they felt comfortable enough to talk with me about it,” he says. “I also talked some people into going to a psychologist.”

Another blog, Free As My Hair Lebanon, was erected earlier this year by 23-year-old Miriam Atallah, who gained local fame after posting a widely-circulated Facebook video in which she “comes out” as a sufferer of trichotillomania. Trichotillomania is a big word for a disorder (usually abbreviated as “trich”) with a straightforward symptom: pulling out strands of hair.

“I started pulling at the age of nine, and I used to think that I was the only one in the world who did it,” Atallah admits. “The pulling relieves me from stress, but I used to feel so guilty when I saw my bald spots and all the hair on the floor.”

(Photo courtesy of Facebook)

“Solutions” to Atallah’s hair-pulling involved either prayer or punishment, the latter due to the widespread erroneous view that those who suffer from psychological disorders are in control of their behavior. At school, Atallah was also the target of bullying due to her bald spots.

“I felt that I was all alone,” she says, “and nobody understood how hard it was for me, no one listened to how I was trying to resist or appreciated my efforts.”

After a particularly rough hair-pulling week, Atallah was struck with the realization that “being passive and apathetic is not really who I am, so why not turn my deepest, darkest secret into something that is more like me, an activist for a cause?”

After a psychologist ensured Atallah was “psychologically ready to take on the challenge,” she decided to shave her head in a symbolic effort to raise awareness about trichotillomania, and her close friend Jeff did so as well as a show of support. She cites her blog as “the most successful thing I’ve ever accomplished,” noting that it provides scientific information to the public about trichotillomania and has helped many “trichsters” and their parents, who were initially suffering in silence.

As the first Lebanese to raise widespread awareness about trichotillomania and the issues surrounding it, Atallah also hopes to start a support group for other sufferers.

Embrace, which aims to create a better understanding of mental health illness in Lebanon is currently working on an initiative called, “Your Story”, which invites individuals who suffer from psychological disorders to either publicly or anonymously submit written accounts of their experiences.