BEIRUT: The Health Ministry launched the National Mental Health Program Thursday, kick-starting a multipronged, long-term strategy to integrate mental health into the primary care system.
The program is the product of collaboration between the ministry, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the International Medical Corps. It seeks to establish preventive and curative services for the mentally ill through a comprehensive approach covering everything from legislation to capacity building.
“The Health Ministry is providing people with the best care that it can and the most expensive medication, but at the same time, there are gaps in the system that need work and development,” said Health Minister Wael Abou Faour, who spoke at the launch ceremony at the Lebanese University.
In attendance were representatives from key partner organizations, including WHO Representative Hassan al-Bushra, IMC Country Director Colin Lee and UNICEF Emergency Coordinator Luciano Calestini.
In the first two years, the Health Ministry will prioritize the integration of mental health into primary care and referral to tertiary care. But Abou Faour said that for the program to be successful, the attitude toward the mentally ill in Lebanon has to shift for individuals and caregivers alike.
“The same approach for infectious disease should be applied to mental illness; for this to prevail, the outlook on mental illness must change,” he said. “The attitude of those taking care of the mentally ill has to change as well.”
According to the minister, one in every four Lebanese suffers from a mental disorder.
“According to the Lebanese [popular] opinion, a person who suffers from a mental disorder is either nonexistent or a crazy person who must be put in an asylum. This program is being launched in order to change the perceptions of people, especially those who take care of the mentally ill.”
Previous studies in Lebanon found that about 17 percent of the population met the criteria for having a mental illness, with widespread cases within the Palestinian refugee community. The lack of services and qualified staff, the cost of counseling and prevailing discriminatory attitudes account for the fact that most mental health disorders are not diagnosed or treated.
“Mental well-being is important for a society to function well,” Bushra said. “Globally, mental disorders, especially depression, are the main factor leading to disability.”
“There is a lack of human resources when it comes to this part of health,” he added, noting that the average number of psychiatrists in high-income countries was about 170 percent higher than those in low- and middle-income countries.
“With the Syria crisis going on, it seems mental health disorders are increasing, especially among the refugees who have come to Lebanon,” he said.
The program will also work toward drafting a policy document encompassing a strategy for mental health, which was commissioned by the ministry and is being carried out by WHO. It will work toward approving and implementing key legislation to facilitate capacity building, including a law to regulate the profession of psychiatry and a law to protect people with mental illness.