The suicide of a talented student at Sana’a University has drawn attention to the lack of psychiatrists and psychological counseling in Yemen’s universities, for students and professors alike.
The death of Faisal Al-Mekhlafi, a student in the Faculty of Mass Communication at Sana’a University, in February has raised questions about the availability of mental-health services in Yemen’s higher education institutions.
One of his former teachers, Belqees Alwan, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Mass Communication, said Al-Mekhlafi would have become a promising journalist “with his extraordinary literary talent and unique writing style that went beyond words.”
“When a talented young man has no chance of a job or quality of life, we end up with such a tragic result,” she told Al-Fanar Media.
‘We All Suffer’
“You cannot imagine how difficult it is for you, as an academic, to live in your homeland, afraid of being targeted, unable to cover the expenses of daily life, and under constant pressure from everyone around you.”Belqees Alwan An assistant professor in the Faculty of Mass Communication at Sana’a University
Alwan explained that the pressure of seven years of war had pushed professors and students alike to a stage of psychological fragility.
“We all suffer from some degree of mental disorder because of the deteriorating living conditions, interruption of salaries, and losing relatives in this war,” she said.
The country’s poor conditions have led dozens of faculty members to withdraw from society, and their behaviour has become “emotionally extreme and intense,” she added.
“You cannot imagine how difficult it is for you, as an academic, to live in your homeland, afraid of being targeted, unable to cover the expenses of daily life, and under constant pressure from everyone around you.”
‘Immense Stressors’ on the Population
Al-Mekhlafi was not the only one finding it hard to get support.
A report published in 2017 by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, titled “The Impact of War on Mental Health in Yemen: A Neglected Crisis”, stated that suicide rates in Sana’a, the capital, had increased by 40.5 percent from 2014, when the war broke out, to 2015.
The report noted that the war was causing Yemen’s people to endure “immense stressors”, like frequent exposure to violence, food shortages, disease and rampant poverty. These stressors “significantly heighten the threat of widespread deterioration of mental health”, it said.
Data on the general status of mental health in Yemen are lacking, the report said, but “the available information suggests that many in the population are likely suffering adverse psychosocial and emotional well-being consequences.”
University Mental-Health Programmes
Yemen’s universities lack resources to help those affected. Things became worse when the counselling centres’ work was suspended and their headquarters were turned into lecture halls.
The director of one mental-health programme at Sana’a University, who requested anonymity, said that more than half of Yemeni psychiatrists had left the country since the outbreak of the war.
He told Al-Fanar Media that the war had “halted mental-health programmes in all universities, given the lack of funding, and disrupted the implementation of the Yemeni Ministry of Health’s strategy for developing mental-health programmes.”
“The first major step is to train health workers outside the capital, Sana’a, to fill the shortage of mental-health experts there, while making it easier to access psychological support services by establishing university units that are subject to supervision and review.”Akram Al-Adwar A professor of educational psychology at Thamar University
Although psychiatry has been taught in Yemeni universities since 1987, the demand for this specialty has remained low because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. This stigma “haunts every student who thinks of specialising in psychiatry,” taught in medical colleges, or psychology, which is taught in “literary colleges,” the academic said.
Akram Al-Adwar, a professor of educational psychology at Thamar University, in southwestern Yemen, told Al-Fanar Media that some universities’ psychology departments were trying to attract funding from international organisations to restore counselling services.
He said international institutions were funding programmes in some war-affected regions of Yemen. “However, we, as professors, do not perceive their effects on the ground,” he said.
Al-Adwar said he had observed a growth in signs of suicidal behaviour among male and female students in Yemeni universities, and a high level of many different psychological disorders among professors.
Another problem, Al-Adwar thinks, is the limited number of mental-health professionals qualified to design programmes specifically for students and faculty members. Most of the professionals at university psychological counselling centres were graduates of literary colleges, he said.
In its 2017 report, the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies cited a study by the World Health Organization that found there were only 40 psychiatric specialists in Yemen, most of them in Sana’a. The Sana’a Center’s report also pointed to WHO data showing that out of 3,500 surveyed health facilities in Yemen, only 21 percent had fully available services for noncommunicable diseases and mental-health conditions.
Al-Adwar said: “The first major step is to train health workers outside the capital, Sana’a, to fill the shortage of mental-health experts there, while making it easier to find psychological support services by establishing university units that are subject to supervision and review.”
He also called for the issues of mental health and reconciliation to be raised in negotiations to stop the war and try to unite Yemeni society.