After a Syrian student’s suicide at the University of Aleppo last month, Syrian academics are speaking out about the urgent need for mental health services on campuses.
University professors and students say there is almost a complete lack of psychological support programmes on campuses to help them cope with the pressures and repercussions of war.
When psychological support is available, they say, it is limited to individual initiatives that are offered from time to time. Some say it is impossible to design more comprehensive programmes because of the large numbers of psychiatrists, psychologists and other medical workers who have fled the country.
An Urgent Need
A professor of psychological counseling at a Syrian university told Al-Fanar Media that suicide has become prevalent in Syria because of the accumulated pressures and the lack of solutions. He described mental health programmes in all universities as “out of service”.
There is an urgent need to develop mental health programmes on campuses, said the professor, who asked to remain anonymous, but he thinks that is unlikely to happen.
“Mental health services in Syria were hit extremely hard during the crisis. The number of psychiatrists declined with extraordinary speed, almost halving from 120 in 2011 to only seventy in 2016.”From a study by the International Committee of the Red Cross
“With the emigration of most of the medical staff, and the scarcity of psychiatrists, even before 2011, addressing the psychological effects of war and post-war traumas relies on mere individual efforts rather a systemic treatment,” he said.
In response to the pressures they face, some students drop out of school, some join armed factions, and others struggle with difficult conditions to continue their education, the professor said.
His statements are supported by a study published by the International Committee of the Red Cross, titled: “Mental Health during the Syrian Crisis: How Syrians are Dealing with the Psychological Effects”.
“Mental health services in Syria were hit extremely hard during the crisis. The number of psychiatrists declined with extraordinary speed, almost halving from 120 in 2011 to only seventy in 2016,” says the study.
Living under Threat of Destruction and Violence
Ghaidaa Salman, a professor of economics at Tishreen University, in Latakia, a coastal city in northwestern Syria, told Al-Fanar Media that attacks on university campuses and the deaths of a number of classmates had left a great psychological impact on students and faculty members.
“Students and professors frequently suffer from psychological disorders such as depression, hopelessness, and anxiety, as reflections of war,” she said. “However, war is not the only cause. Poor economic conditions have exacerbated these disorders.”
Salman calls for an end to the war and terrorist attacks so that Syrians can rebuild their homeland and address the psychological and economic impact of the conflict.
Psychological Pressures on Students
Shireen Abdel-Aziz, who studies theatre and criticism at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, in Damascus, was previously a student at the University of Aleppo’s Faculty of Science.
She said the war had prompted her, like thousands of students, to move to Damascus University to complete her studies.
The war has had a significant impact on young people’s mental health, she said. Survival has become students’ first concern, rather than academic success. She also says that she found no psychological support programmes during her studies at Damascus University and the University of Aleppo.
“Students and professors frequently suffer from psychological disorders such as depression, hopelessness, and anxiety, as reflections of war. However, war is not the only cause. Poor economic conditions have exacerbated these disorders.Ghaidaa Salman, A professor of economics at Tishreen University, in Latakia
Abdel-Aziz, who was born in the northeastern city of Qamishli, said she decided to study theatre arts in search of a “new passion” that would help her continue living.
“The psychological impact of war made me look for a way out of this pressure, anxiety, and fear,” she said. “My interests in writing and critical theatre studies have changed due to psychological pressures.”
Similarly, Maysoon Ali, a professor and head of the screenplay and film criticism department at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, said that Syria’s art institutes lack psychological counselors, despite the great need for them.
She added that students are now a war generation who have suffered from its devastating ravages at all levels, in addition to the pressures of economic collapse, the spread of violence, the rupture of the social fabric, and the dwindling job opportunities.
Ali recommends providing psychological counseling services in educational institutions. She also calls for designing mental health support programmes that help students achieve autonomy, creates positive changes in students’ behavior and interactions with each other, and helps them adapt to society.
Mental health programs are a necessity in any society, and particularly Syria, during and after the long-running war, Ali said.
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She noted that programmes in several Syrian regions had started using psychodrama therapy to help people suffering from severe psychological symptoms. This approach includes the use of theatrical techniques, and bringing educational theatre into daily life places rather than clinics, in cooperation with supervisors specialised in psychiatry and drama.
Ali stressed the need to build meaningful and permanent networks of communication with academic and rehabilitation departments at colleges and universities across disciplines of psychological and counseling services.
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