The Jordanian author putting mental health in the spotlight

Rima Jbara, who has been writing about psychological illnesses for over two decades, welcomes regional discussion on the subject but says more needs to be done, writes Keith J Fernandez

A personal battle with chronic depression has cast author Rima Jbara as an unwitting ambassador for mental health issues in the region. The nomadic Dubai resident has published over 15 books in the last 25 years, several of which have shone a light on disorders of the psyche.

‘Hope’, her seventh and most well-known work, used prose and free verse to tell the story of a painter suffering from bipolar depression when it was published a decade ago.

“Several factors contributed to inspire me to write ‘Hope’. Some of the artists and writers that I love committed suicide. Had they remained alive, they would have created more beauty in this world. I also suffer from certain mental health issues, which I think makes me credible about these topics,” says the Jordanian national who published her first book at 14, following encouragement from her editor father.

Originally written in English, it has since been translated into Arabic and is still receiving traction, with a blog tour this month. Jbara’s later books deal with schizophrenia (‘Riot of the Senses’), and situational depression (‘Tangled Words’).

“Some people have no idea about the types of depression and how each of them makes the patient react completely differently. Depression, for example, is one main term, with other types branching from it,” Jbara explains. She herself studied psychology with the Dubai-based clinical and forensic psychologist and longtime radio host Dr Raymond Hamden. “With my work I want to shed light on various types of mental illnesses.”

Mental health is finally being discussed around the world after years of being stigmatised both here and overseas. The UK’s Prince Harry has spent much of the last year urging people to be more open about mental health challenges after disclosing how he nearly had a complete breakdown on several occasions during a 20-year struggle to cope with the death of his mother. He has since used his celebrity to actively campaign for greater discussions on the subject, taking the issue into primary schools.

Earlier this year, the Dubai Health Authority launched its first comprehensive mental health strategy, aimed at empowering patients and removing associated stigmas.

“Demand for mental health services in Dubai has increased in both the public and private sectors. Mood disorders, anxiety, developmental disorders, psychotic disorders and behavioural and emotional disorders account for 88 per cent of outpatient diagnosis at DHA facilities,” Humaid Mohammad Obaid Al Qutami, chairman of the board and director-general of DHA, said at the launch.

Worldwide, one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, the World Health Organization says. Some 450 million people are currently afflicted by mental conditions, but nearly two-thirds never seek help.

Jbara’s work offers another, more relatable side to the story. She says readers aren’t always upfront with her about their experiences – for various reasons.

“Shyness, worried how they might be perceived, a belief that it’s a private matter that should not be highlighted especially to non-family members.”

During interviews or on book tours, she says she is forced to be careful in the way she answers questions.

“I know some of the audiences do not believe in mental health issues either due to religious or cultural reasons.”

These factors prevent the region from having a frank, forthright discussion about the subject, she adds.

“The concept of taking antidepressants raises eyebrows from pharmacists to people around that patient. Some mental health patients attempt to suicide – but people who survive suicidal attempts face penalty, jail, or deportation. These laws make it very difficult to help mentally ill patients.”

That public authorities have launched mental health strategies is a step in the right direction.

“The general perception of mental health in the Middle East region is still hazy and not understood. I hear people saying they are depressed when in fact they are having anxiety and panic attacks,” Jbara says, joining the dots between awareness and understanding. “More needs to be done.”