Although mental health is gaining more and more importance in Egypt and the general Arab world, it is still considered somewhat of a taboo topic to discuss openly.
Middle Eastern countries have a history of shaming mental health issues or problems, causing the majority of their populations to ‘keep quiet’ if they are facing mental health issues or to simply ‘brush them off’. This ‘there are more serious issues’ mentality has therefore been prevalent when it comes to issues of mental health.
In reality however, a large number of Egyptians face all sorts of mental health issues and more people are now seeking some form of therapy. In fact, online therapy has increased in popularity and platforms such as Shezlong (founded in 2014) have emerged in order to facilitate accessibility to therapists.
According to a 2018 article published in Egypt Today in which the Ministry of Health conducted a nation-wide survey on mental health, they found that “25 percent of the [Egyptian] population is found to be suffering from mental health-related problems… The study showed the prevalence of anxiety and depression disorders among that quarter of the respondents.”
That being said, it is worth noting how mental health is being given a platform in Egypt. Although social media undoubtedly takes the lead in being a strong accelerator in providing greater awareness around mental health issues in the country, giving people a chance to speak out and share their experiences, the arts have also always been a great way to raise awareness around issues of mental health.
In Egypt, mental health is not usually the main topic that may drive the plot-line of a film and oftentimes, those who are portrayed as ‘suffering from mental health issues’ in Egyptians films are usually highly stylized or dramatized.
There are however, a few films that have tried to highlight issues of mental health under a rather different light. Surprisingly enough, one of such films is an older cinematic gem by the name of Be’r al Herman (A Well of Deprivation). This is a 1969 film written by the wonderful Ihsan Abdel Kodous and starring Souad Hosny, Mahmoud el Meligy and Nour el Sherif.
The film is special in that it somehow manages to create an air of understanding around the main character’s (Hosny) mental health issues. The storyline is wonderfully written in that it gives precedence to the fact that there are underlying issues that must be acknowledged that have led to the character’s development of mental health issues.
The plot revolves around Nahed (Hosny) who faces mental health issues and seeks treatment from a psychologist/therapist (El Meligy). We find out that Nahed suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) as the film reveals that she is the calm and collected Nahed by day, but she turns into the more playful and rather rebellious Mervat by night.
As the film progresses, we eventually come to realize that Nahed’s DID comes as a result of childhood trauma; the story reveals that as a child, Nahed was significantly affected by her father’s cruel treatment towards her mother.
The great aspect of this film is that other than the fact that the story is well written, it is a refreshingly different way in which an Egyptian film tackles mental health. As opposed to shaming the disorder and portraying Nahed as merely a ‘troubled person’, the film gives reason and background ultimately painting a picture for audiences to understand the complexities behind mental health issues and developed disorders.
Although there have indeed been other Egyptian films that have somehow discussed mental health issues, such as the slightly more recent 2008 film Asef ala el Ezaag (Sorry to Disturb) starring Ahmed Helmy in which a genius engineer struggles with loneliness and depression, there has not yet been enough discussion around mental health in Egyptian film – most especially not as significantly and analytically as Be’r al Herman (A Well of Deprivation).
In a time where mental health is becoming more of an issue, be it as a result of globalization through the internet and false representations through social media that may cause unhealthy comparisons and the like, it is vital that we move forward to meet with the needs of the time. More people – youth in particular – are regularly speaking out about mental health and it would be greatly effective for the arts (most especially films and television shows, as they are widely consumed in Egypt) to begin further tackling issues of mental health in an appropriate way that may serve the community.