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MSF in Lebanon, 2009
Field Staff: 21
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In Lebanon, 17 percent of the population suffer from mental health problems according to a recent national survey, but few have access to treatment. The problem is even more acute among people living in refugee camps, whether they are Palestinians who have lived there for decades, or more recently displaced people from Iraq. In December 2008, MSF opened a mental health center in Bourj el-Barajneh, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, near a large Palestinian refugee camp. As well as providing psychological and psychiatric assistance, MSF has also started activities to promote the integration of mental health care within existing healthcare services for Palestinians and Lebanese communities.
Bourj el-Barajneh is a suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut. It is home to a mix of Lebanese people, Palestinian refugees who have lived in camps since 1948, and recently arrived Iraqi refugees. Following a 2008 study on medical needs in Lebanon, MSF decided to start a new project that would provide mental health services to the poor and most vulnerable people living in this area.
The first full year of operations for this three-year program was 2009. Throughout the year, between the MSF Mental Health Community center in Bourj el-Barajneh and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency clinic in the Palestinian refugee camp, MSF psychologists, psychiatrists and nurses carried out 2,300 consultations. Patients were mostly of Palestinian and Lebanese origin, and some were Iraqi refugees. Depression was the most commonly observed mental health problem, followed by anxiety disorder, psychosis, epilepsy and personality disorder. Further diagnoses included drug and alcohol abuse, bipolar disorder and dementia.
At first, the MSF team encountered difficulties in convincing people to come and consult mental health specialists, since mental disorders are very much stigmatized in the communities. In order to challenge this, health education sessions are regularly held in the refugee camp and at the nearby MSF center, and MSF community health workers regularly visit marginalized and disadvantaged patients’ families.
As yet, mental health is not seen as a primary public health concern in Lebanon. There are only about 50 registered psychiatrists in the country. MSF has therefore been pushing for a better integration of mental health care within the existing healthcare services, and has been promoting its community-based mental health care approach during meetings with Lebanese health authorities and other partners.
Salwa, a Lebanese mother of four, who is married to a Palestinian man
‘A few months ago, following the advice of a friend, I went to the MSF Mental Health Community center. I knew I could get free psychological support there. Session after session, I started feeling better and I even started participating in the center’s activities. I was lucky enough to meet other women suffering with the same problems, and I did not feel alone any more. My life has turned in a new direction. Today, I am able to talk about my psychological problems and to accept them, without fear of other peoples’ opinions. I am happy I could find somebody to talk to who enabled me, for the first time, to believe in myself.’
MSF has worked in Lebanon since 2008.