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BEIRUT: As the Lebanese people continue to grapple with the effects of the financial crisis in the country, political unrest and the consequences of the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut, concern is growing about the health consequences of these crises mental.
Although no exact statistics are available on how many people are taking sedatives, psychiatrists report that the number of patients visiting their clinics over the past year has exceeded 12 a day.
Meanwhile, pharmacists estimate that people wanting to buy psychotropics – drugs that affect a person’s mental state, including antidepressants, anxiolytics and mood stabilizers – make up 30-35% of their customers. .
According to some medical estimates, one in five people in Lebanon experience anxiety, sadness or depression due to the country’s economic and social conditions, but medicine and health care are not readily available to many.
The Lebanese pound has fallen in value against the dollar and soaring prices are depleting incomes and wages. The explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020 and the armed clashes in the Tayouneh district of the city last October have further fueled the sense of despair among many people.
“Since the end of 2019, following economic and social escalation, levels of mental disorders have risen dramatically,” said Hiba Dandachli, director of communications for Embrace, an organization that provides mental health services.
In 2021, she said, 20,000 people called Embrace Lifeline, more than any previous year. She said a high proportion of callers, mostly young people and teenagers, suffered from conditions such as anxiety, depression and insomnia due to the effects of deteriorating economic and social conditions and unemployment.
“The Lebanese took to the streets in 2019 to express their anger,” Dandachli said. “However, they feel hopeless due to the escalating crises.
“Without social justice and without guaranteeing the fundamental right to stability, our services are limited to helping people, not providing solutions. We are sedatives.
Joelle, 33, who works at an insurance company, said she sought help from a psychiatrist because she suffered from anxiety due to the difficult economic situation and fear of not being able to provide for the needs of his family.
“I started choking at night and having panic attacks,” she said. The treatment that has been prescribed requires drugs either unavailable in pharmacies or very expensive, she added.
A study published in December by the Lebanese American University indicated that “16.17% of young people, between the ages of 18 and 24, suffer from severe depression since the explosion of August 4, and 40.95% of women suffer from post-traumatic stress”.
“We mainly see cases of mood disorders in our clinic,” said Dr. Hanaa Azar, a psychiatrist who works with adults and children.
She estimates that “between 70 and 80% of Lebanese take sedatives due to sleep disorders, stomach spasms, tachycardia, eczema, phobias, body pains and other physical symptoms that are symptoms of mental disorders”.
She added: “All generations suffer in one way or another from these disorders due to precariousness, especially children. As everyone returned to school and work, behavioral and academic disturbances emerged and cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder increased among adults.
Doctors and psychiatrists are particularly worried about the shortage of drugs, especially since most are no longer subsidized by the state and the rest are only partially subsidized. Only cancer drugs are still fully subsidized. Subsidies on drugs for neurological conditions depend on the price of the drug in question.
“A very large number of Lebanese are taking a sedative drug, the price of which has gone from 25,000 Lebanese pounds to 420,000 in just two months.” The official exchange rate remains at 1,500 pounds to the dollar, but this is unavailable and the currency is currently trading on the informal black market at over 30,000 pounds to the dollar.
Pharmacist Samer Soubra says he does not understand why there are still drug shortages when prices have been increased to account for the soaring exchange rate.
“Drug distributors were reluctant to distribute to pharmacies given the high exchange rate,” he said. “Today, subsidies have been removed on many medicines and are now priced according to the black market exchange rate, but some are still missing, including infant formula.”
Thousands of Lebanese resort to obtaining the medicines they need, including psychotropic drugs, from relatives abroad or from people who bring them from Turkey, Cyprus, Greece and Jordan, or from donations carried out by Lebanese expatriates in France.
However, many do without it. “Some people stopped taking their medications and experienced health issues,” Azar said.
Psychiatrist Dr Yara Chamoun said many Lebanese who previously showed no signs of mental disorders began to suffer from them amid the economic crisis, especially young people.
“In addition to cases of depression and anxiety, we find cases of alcohol and drug abuse,” she said. “Patients say they have become addicted to it because it helps them sleep or forget harsh reality.”
Psychiatrists find themselves at an impasse in their efforts to treat patients when the required drugs are not readily available, Chamoun said.
“Some alternative psychotropics may not work well enough on the patient, while others may be too expensive for them,” she explained.
Amal Moukarzel, a Lebanese expatriate in France, founded Les Amis du Liban de Colombes with her husband and friends to collect donations of medicines and send them to Lebanon.
“We now send around 120 kg of medicine from time to time, obtained from hospitals and sent in cooperation with Middle East Airlines to local associations in Lebanon for distribution to patients in need,” she said.
Despite the logistical problems she faces, Moukarzel said she insisted on sending “more of these much-needed drugs, most of which are for diabetes and blood pressure, as well as psychotropics.”