x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Arabic TV's portrayal of mentally ill 'discourages them to seek treatment'

Doctors criticise portrayal of mental illness in film and on TV as comic relief involving crazy, dangerous people

ABU DHABI // Arabic movies and television shows often stigmatise mental health problems by portraying characters suffering from them as crazy and even dangerous, according to doctors. By using mental illness as comic relief, these shows contribute to society's confusion about what it means to suffer from psychological problems, said Dr Mufeed Raoof, a psychiatrist at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC).

Speaking this week at the first of a series of free monthly lectures to raise awareness of mental health issues, Dr Raoof said this lack of understanding leads to patients suffering unnecessarily. "There is an ignorance," Dr Raoof said, "that makes people resistant to seeking treatment, and makes them describe psychiatric wards or hospitals as the lunatic asylum." Dr Afrah al Hashemi, the head of social services at SKMC, said the entertainment industry significantly shapes public perceptions of the mentally ill.

There has been controversy over the Egyptian soap opera Al Rajul Al Akhar (The Other Man), for instance. The show, which aired during Ramadan in 2000, starred the renowned actors Nour al Sharif and Mervat Amin, but was criticised for using patients with mental illnesses as comical characters, as well as using bogus treatment methods at a hospital often described as "the lunatic asylum." Similarly, the 1985 Egyptian movie Khalee Balak Min A'lak (Watch Out For Your Mind), starring Sherihan and the comedian Adel Al Imam, was a comic musical about a mental health institute, also described in the movie as "the lunatic asylum", with the patients described as "crazies."

In neither the television show nor the movie was a specific mental illness described or noted, and both showed archaic methods of treatment, such as electroshock therapy and isolation. A more positive portrayal, said Dr al Hashemi, was seen in the 2001 Oscar-winning Hollywood production A Beautiful Mind, about the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash and his battle with paranoid schizophrenia.

Mr Nash, who was in Abu Dhabi last November to attend the Festival of Thinkers, a gathering of Nobel laureates and intellectuals from around the world, has gone on record as saying the movie's portrayal was accurate. In A Beautiful Mind, Dr al Hashemi said, "proper research was done to show textbook symptoms of a disease, instead of choosing to dramatise it and scare people into thinking, more than they already do, that being mentally ill is a taboo, when it's really just a disease that can be treated".

Although there is no current data to provide a mental health overview of the UAE, a study in the UK published in 1992 found that 35 per cent of people suffered from some type of mental illness or a lapse in mental health during their lifetime, of which only 23 per cent seek the help of a primary health care physicians. Of those, only 11 per cent are diagnosed properly. Five per cent are referred to psychiatric hospitals.

Dr Tareq Darwish, the medical director of the behavioural sciences pavilion at the SKMC, believes the figures for the UAE and the rest of the Arab world could be significantly lower, but did not cite a reason. "Regardless of what I believe are lower rates of mental illness in the Middle East, in the UAE we have long waiting lists of patients seeking psychotherapy at the hospital, and people here are more prone to seek help from psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists than one would believe," said Dr Darwish.

Dr Darwish and Dr Raoof said there was still a problem with the way society perceived people who seek treatment. Dr Raoof juxtaposed the popular view of physical health with that of mental health. "People are told to exercise to improve their physical fitness but what about their mental health fitness, how are they caring for that, and are they even aware of it?" he asked. "Some people are more mentally healthy than others, like those who are more confident, more secure, more able to deal with difficult, stressful situations when they arise and bounce back, more able to react well to their surroundings and control outbursts," Dr Raoof said.

The next lecture in this series, scheduled for April 6, will tackle marital issues. The lectures, which are open to the public, will be held on the first Tuesday of every month until August. @Email:hkhalaf@thenational.ae