BEIRUT: A march aimed at raising awareness about suicide and remembering those who have succumbed to mental illness is set to take place this weekend, the first such event in Lebanon, where suicide is not just overlooked but is a taboo issue. The event, organized under the slogan “Into the Dawn,” is to take place from 5:45 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. Sunday, March 9. Farah Yehia, a member of Embrace Fund, which is coordinating the march, said it was being held early in the morning because of its representational significance.
“Into the Dawn is symbolic,” said Yehia, who is also the mental health advocacy coordinator in the American University of Beirut Medical Center’s psychiatry department. She said that with the help of treatment, many victims of clinical depression aim to get “out of the darkness and into the dawn to get better.”
Organizers hope the walk will bring together those who have lost loved ones to suicide or who have themselves battled suicidal thoughts, as well as breaking the stigma associated with suicide.
Embrace Fund, which functions as part of AUBMC, was launched last October and aims to create a better understanding of mental illness in Lebanon, where disorders are often either kept secret or are not properly addressed.
The organization also raises funds toward the costs of psychiatric treatment for those who cannot afford it, as there are currently no health insurance policies in Lebanon that cover any form of mental illness, and treatment is often expensive.
The walk will start at the seaside gate of AUB’s Charles Hostler Student Center, and will pass the Intercontinental Vendome Hotel in Ain al-Mreisseh. Proceeds will contribute to funding an emergency hotline for those contemplating suicide, a service that is currently non-existent in Lebanon.
According to Dr. Ziad Nahas, co-founder and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at AUBMC, those struggling with suicidal intentions suffer from a lack of options. “It’s a dire situation,” he said.
“Suicidal individuals usually feel very isolated, and if their case is not addressed, it can continue weighing heavily on them,” he told The Daily Star.
Those suffering from mental illness feel too ashamed or afraid to seek psychiatric help, although specialists claim mental illness is no different from other diseases like cancer or heart conditions.
“Mental illness is not recognized as a serious illness, and people still perceive it as something shameful,” Nahas said.
Consequently, there are no statistics to account for the number of people suffering from mental illness in Lebanon, and the only available figures are estimates based on data from neighboring countries.
The World Health Organization’s global burden of disease study estimates that each year 3.3 percent of people take their own lives in Lebanon. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the death rates attributed to self-harm and mental or behavioral disorders in Lebanon were 2.14 per 100,000 people and 1.72 per 100,000 people, respectively, as of 2010. This means that each year up to 152 Lebanese die from suicide.
The march aims to “de-stigmatize suicide,” Nahas said. It will culminate with participants gathering in a circle to share their experiences, which will include the story of Nahas’ own wife, Michella Nahas, as a form of “collective catharsis.”
Embrace Fund is adamant on spreading the word about mental illness, and suicide in particular, in order to start a dialogue, and while few people are expected to attend Sunday, those present will be enough, Nahas said.
“I think if 40 or 50 people show up as a start, it would be a wonderful thing,” he added.
“We hope that this will be an example, one that will resonate.”