'They think I'm crazy': Syrians struggle with their mental health in Lebanon's lockdown

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Since Lebanon's lockdown began, Mohammed, 16, has had little else to do than string beads onto bracelets all day, a skill he learned in prison in Syria.

He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder since he spent seven months in a government prison in Damascus, and already had a strained relationship with his family before confinement measures were announced in mid-March to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

After a few tense days of living with 10 other people in one tent in the dusty Lebanese border town of Arsal, Mohammed’s father decided that it was best that his troubled son live alone in a separate tent.

Although Mohammed said he was happy to have his own privacy after the move, his anxiety and depression remained.

“I barely see my friends anymore,” he told The National on the phone.

Confinement measures have exacerbated mental health issues worldwide, but they are particularly noticeable among Lebanon’s refugee population.

Months before it was hit by the pandemic, the country was already suffering from its worst-ever economic crisis, which caused massive social unrest and raised stress levels across the country.

The global coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the pre-existing crisis, though Lebanon has been relatively spared, with 26 deaths and 1,172 confirmed cases, including 16 among Syrian refugees.

“[Mohammed’s] symptoms increased badly because he was stuck at home. He wanted to run away from the house. He doesn’t know how to talk to his family,” said Sibelle Hajj, Mohammed’s psychologist for the last seven months. She works for Himaya, an NGO that specialises in mental health support for children.

Health Ministry staff conduct random tests for the Covid-19 disease at Imam Al-Hadi Zentrum in the Ouzai area south of Beirut. EPA

A Lebanese protester, wearing a protective mask bearing a fist, is pictured during a demonstration in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020. AFP

A member of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces distributes protective face masks in Hamra street. EPA

Neighbours listen to music and watch laser projections from their balconies as members of the Lebanese collective "Nuage" perform from the roof of a building to entertain confined residents in their neighbourhood of Dekwaneh. AFP

Neighbours listen to music and watch laser projections from their balconies as members of the Lebanese collective "Nuage" perform from the roof of a building to entertain confined residents in their neighbourhood of Dekwaneh. AFP

Runners smile and react to having their picture taken as they run on Beirut's corniche, along the Mediterranean Sea. AP

Health Ministry staff wear protective face masks and protective suits as they wait to conduct a random tests for the Covid-19. EPA

Health Ministry staff conduct random tests for the Covid-19 disease at Imam Al-Hadi Zentrum in the Ouzai area south of Beirut. EPA

A Lebanese drummer wears a protective mask and carries a small drum as he makes his rounds waking Muslims for Suhor, the meal taken during Ramadan before sunrise prayers, amid a lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic in Beirut. EPA

Medical staff at the Saint George Hospital University Medical Centre in charge of Covid-19 coronavirus patients reflections off a window as they listen to music played by a band thanking them for their efforts during the novel coronavirus pandemic. AFP

A nurse at the Lebanese hospital Notre Dame des Secours shows a heart gesture with her hands as others dance to music played by a band thanking them for their efforts. AFP

Staff of a Lebanese government hospital dance to music played by a band thanking them for their efforts. AFP

Staff members of the Lebanese American University Medical Centre-Rizk Hospital, currently dealing with COVID-19 coronavirus patients, look out from windows as they listen to music. AFP

Palestinian fighters from the Fatah movement, left, wearing masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, stand guard next to a Palestinian worker from UNRWA who is waiting to spray disinfectant AP

A Palestinian nurse wears protective equipment to help curb the spread of the coronavirus inside a clinic at Jalil, or Galilee Palestinian refugee camp, in Baalbek. AP

A Palestinian fighter from the Fatah movement distributes masks for people to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. AP

Palestinians wearing masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus stand on their balcony watching the arrival of the Lebanese health minister at Jalil, or Galilee Palestinian refugee camp, in Baalbek. AP

A health worker dressed in a protective outfit walks in an alley at the Wavel Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. AFP

“When triggers are this strong, people can fall back into previous states of trauma,” said Anaelle Saade, mental health supervisor for international NGO Médecins Sans Frontières-Switzerland in northern Lebanon.

“Syrians came to Lebanon for safety, and it doesn’t give it all,” she said.

Mohammed does not want to talk publicly about why he was imprisoned in Syria, or about what happened to him during his time in prison. When he was released eight months ago, he left his mother behind in Damascus to travel to Lebanon to join his father, his second wife, and their children in Lebanon.

Prison was “very hard,” he said. Media and human rights reports have detailed the horrific abuse of many detainees, including children, with mock executions held and routine torture such as electric shocks and sexual assault.

To make things worse, Syrians who fled their country's near decade-long civil war have long outlived their welcome in Lebanon, with President Michel Aoun often saying publicly that they should go home.

Due to the volume of challenges they face, refugees find it had to prioritise their mental health and finding effective, affordable support can be difficult.

Maria, 21, arrived in Lebanon from Syria when she was 13. Soon after, she began having panic attacks and anxiety. She was prescribed medication, but it caused her to loose huge amounts of weight and develop allergies, leading doctors to initially think she had a disorder in her ovaries.

“They made a mess of me. This all made my psychological situation worse,” said Maria, who broke down into tears several times over the course of the conversation.

“All this cost a lot and my father had to borrow money … I felt that nobody could understand me.

Last summer, Maria was referred to a MSF psychologist, who has been trying to wean her off the medication. Her anxiety has skyrocketed since confinement began, but she has maintained contact with her psychologist via Whatsapp and face-to-face sessions resumed last week.

It has taken her family years to understand her mental health issues.

“My parents do not think it’s shameful, but society believes it is. They think I’m crazy,” she said.

Mohammed never talks about his past with his friends, and his relationship with his father remains difficult. The coronavirus pandemic does not worry him, he said, because there have been no cases in Arsal.

“[Syrian refugees] just fled a war and now you bring them a pandemic. A pandemic will not scare them,” said MSF's Ms Saade. However, psychologists say a lack of fear is not necessarily a good thing.

“Anxiety and stress are somewhat healthy. If you’re stressed, you’ll be vigilant," said Mrs Saade.

"Letting go is not a survival mechanism ... They’re becoming numb.”

*The names in this article have been changed for privacy

Updated: May 31, 2020 11:34 AM

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