Beirut: As Lebanese continue to struggle with the financial crisis in the country, political turmoil and the effects of the devastating explosion on the port of Beirut, there is growing concern about the toll these crises have on mental health.
While no exact figures are available for the number of people taking sedatives, psychiatrists report that the number of patients visiting their clinics in the past year exceeded 12.
Meanwhile, pharmacists estimate that people willing to buy psychotropics — drugs that affect a person’s mental state, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication and mood stabilizers — account for 30 to 35 percent of their customers.
According to some medical estimates, one in five people in Lebanon feel anxiety, sadness or depression as a result of the country’s economic and social conditions, but medicine and health care are not readily available for many.
The Lebanese pound has declined in value against the dollar and rising prices are eroding income and wages. The Beirut blasts on August 4, 2020 and armed clashes in the city’s Tayouneh neighborhood last October added to the sense of despair among many.
“Since the end of 2019, the level of mental disorders has increased dramatically, following a growing economic and social collapse,” said Hiba Dandachali, communications director at Embrace, a mental health services organization.
In 2021, she said, 20,000 people called Embrace Lifeline, more than in any previous year. She said a large proportion of callers, mostly youth and adolescents, suffered from conditions such as anxiety, depression and insomnia as a result of the effects of declining economic and social conditions and unemployment.
“Lebanese took to the streets in 2019 to express their anger,” Dandachali said. “However, they feel hopeless due to the escalating crisis.
“Without securing the fundamental right to social justice and sustainability, our services are limited to helping people, not providing solutions. We are sedatives. ,
Joel, 33, who works at an insurance company, said she sought help from a psychiatrist because she was suffering from anxiety over the dire financial situation and fear of being unable to provide for her family.
“I started suffocating at night and experienced panic attacks,” she said. He added that the treatment that was prescribed requires medication that is either not available in pharmacies or is too expensive.
A study published in December by Lebanese American University indicated that “16.17 percent of youth, between the ages of 18 and 24, suffer from severe depression since the August 4 eruption, and 40.95 percent of women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“We primarily see cases of mood disorders in our clinic,” said Dr. Hana Azar, a psychiatrist who works with adults and children.
They believe that “70 to 80 percent of people in Lebanon take sedatives as a result of sleep disorders, abdominal cramps, tachycardia, eczema, phobias, body aches and other physical symptoms that are characteristic of mental disorders.”
He continued: “All generations suffer from these disorders in one way or another, as a result of insecurity, especially children. As everyone returns to school and work, behavioral and academic disorders have emerged and in adults obsessive- Cases of compulsive disorder have increased.”
Doctors and psychiatrists are particularly concerned about the shortage of drugs, especially since most are no longer subsidized by the state and the rest are only partially subsidized. Only cancer drugs are still fully subsidized. Subsidies on drugs for neurological conditions depend on the cost of the particular drug.
“A very large number of Lebanese take a sedative drug, the cost of which has risen from 25,000 Lebanese pounds to 420,000 within just two months.” The official exchange rate against the dollar remains at £1,500, but this is unavailable and the currency currently trades at over £30,000 on the unofficial black market.
Pharmacist Sameer Soubra said that he does not understand why there is still a shortage of medicines despite the increase in prices keeping in mind the rising exchange rate.
“Drug distributors were reluctant to distribute to pharmacies in light of the high exchange rate,” he said. “Today, subsidies on many drugs have been removed and they are now priced according to the exchange rate on the black market, yet some are still missing, including infant formula.”
Thousands of people in Lebanon resort to getting the medicines they need, especially psychotropic drugs, from relatives from other countries or donations made by people brought in from Turkey, Cyprus, Greece and Jordan, or by Lebanese expatriates in France.
Still, many are going without. “Some people have stopped taking their medication and experienced health issues,” Azar said.
Psychiatrist Dr Yara Chamoun said that many Lebanese who previously showed no symptoms of mental disorders are beginning to suffer, especially young people, amid the economic crisis.
“In addition to cases of depression and anxiety, we find cases of alcoholism and drug abuse,” she said. “Patients say they became addicted to them because they help them sleep or forget the harsh reality.”
Chamoun said that when needed medication is not readily available, psychiatrists find themselves at a standstill in their efforts to treat patients.
“Some alternative psychotropics may not work adequately on the patient, while others may be too costly for them,” she explained.
Amal Maukarzel, a Lebanese expat in France, founded Les Amis du Libans de Columbus (Friends of Lebanon in Columbus) with her husband and friends to collect donations of medicines and send them to Lebanon.
“We now periodically send about 120kg of medicines, received from hospitals and in collaboration with Middle East Airlines, to local associations in Lebanon to be distributed to patients in need,” she said.
Despite the logistical problems she faces, Maukarzel said she insists on sending “more of these essential drugs, most of which are for diabetes and blood pressure, as well as psychotropics.”