“I cry for no apparent reason. I prefer to be alone. I have 1,000 words, none describes what I’m going through, and yes, I didn’t just think of ending my life, I tried. For a long time, I thought the grey cloud above my head will be my only companion. My God, now COVID-19 and quarantine! We are stuck. There is no oxygen, there is no hope”. These are the despondent words of a 26 year old woman living in Syria.
Ten years of war have left 13.4 million Syrians in need of assistance and 7 million are internally displaced, some many times over. With more than 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line, few Syrians have been spared from the direct and indirect impacts of what constitutes one of the largest displacement crises in the world, and millions are still dependent on humanitarian assistance for their survival.
The World Health Organization estimates that in areas affected by conflict, one person in five is living with some form of mental disorder, from mild depression or anxiety to psychosis. Almost one in 10 is living with a moderate or severe mental disorder.
“I thought I would carry it with me to the grave and never tell anyone. The psychiatrist helped me express my thoughts from the first session. I was surprised. I had to let these thoughts out. After every session I felt I had the energy to overcome the challenges I’m facing. I needed this. I needed to trust someone with my thoughts,” said a 25 year old woman who is receiving support from Fadfada, Syria’s first online psychosocial support platform launched by UNDP.
To those who struggle with mental health the COVID-19 pandemic presents an additional layer of pain; a crisis within a crisis, one that threatens to have deep socio-economic effects on the people of Syria, exacerbating the suffering of the most vulnerable populations over the months and years to come.
In the words of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres; “Mental health is at the core of our humanity. The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering; grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future”.
In addition, pre-existing toxic social norms and gender inequalities, coupled with the additional economic and social stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to an exponential increase in gender based violence, where many women and young girls are cut off from support.
“Those with mental and distress symptoms are stigmatized by the public and many needing care choose not to access mental health services. This is why we felt the need to create an accessible safe space for people to reach out for help anonymously,” says Leena Taha, project manager and gender analyst at UNDP Syria.
UNDP launched Fadfada in August 2020, in cooperation with WHO. Providing confidential support through virtual media, the programme is accessible to people across the country including hard to reach areas, such as Idleb and Raqqa. People can reach out anonymously, leave a short description of the issues they are facing and indicate a preferred time and means of contact. Cases are then prioritized depending on nature and severity, and a specialist is assigned to contact and follow up on the case, free of charge.
A network of 26 specialists, including psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, speech therapists, and family counsellors are available around the clock, six days a week. In the first two months since its launch, they have already responded to more than 2,500 cases.
“My son is very smart, but he hates school because he feels rejected there. We’ve seen many specialists. We changed many schools, even private ones, but it didn’t work. Fadfada was my last resort, I felt heard for the first time, I felt the difference from the first three sessions. I’m very happy today, he was able to present in science class and he did great!” said the mother of a 10 year-old boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“The majority of cases are 19 to 29 years old, those who grew up during the war. Anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder are the most common diagnoses. The loss of self-esteem and hope and the feelings of emptiness leads to reckless behaviour and negative coping mechanisms. With not much hope for the future, they feel like their lives don’t matter,” said Dr Mazen Khalil, psychiatrist and project supervisor. “One of the main challenges we’re facing is the complex cases that need further medical treatment and in person follow up that is not available at the moment.”
Thanks to generous funding from the Government of Japan, thousands of vulnerable Syrians will have professional mental health support to help them through difficult times.
“It is challenging to manage the influx of cases with the limited number of specialists we have at the moment, I really hope we can secure more funds to expand our network in the near future.” said Leena Taha.
Written by Asma’ Nashawati, Communications Associate, UNDP Syria