Mental Health Stigma in Kuwait

Despite the global pervasiveness of mental health illness, disorders of this kind are still stigmatized in society. The “labeling” that is often associated with mental health disorders is a reality that many have to contend with. In an attempt to reduce these negative perceptions, the World Health Organization conducted an annual report in 2001 to encourage the incorporation of mental health care to health services. The assumption at the time was that governments and societies around the world would have a better comprehension of these little-known disorders and subsequently accept them as part general health. Nevertheless, stigma associated with mental health disorders still remains a major social issue for many counties. One such country is the oil-rich nation of Kuwait. Here, being “labeled” mentally ill has dire consequences for suffers. Mental health stigma often results in the said individuals being ridiculed by other members of society as weak or cursed. The pervasiveness of this trend is particularly worrying considering the high numbers of persons suffering from one or a combination of several mental illnesses.

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It is currently estimated that around 200,000 Kuwaitis suffer from depression and bipolar disorder (Abdel-Khalek and Lester 23). This is particularly worrying, especially considering that the country has a population of only 4.5 million. At 6%, Kuwait essentially has one of the highest percentages of individuals suffering from mental health illness relative to its population. Persons with such disorders are, therefore, more likely to experience mental health stigma throughout the course of their lives. Steeped in Islamic culture, one would expect the society in Kuwait to be more accepting of those experiences various challenges in life. Nonetheless, the Kuwaiti society confronts mental health issues with a negative attitude that has been detrimental to many sufferers. It is, thus, necessary to explore the state of mental health stigma, how such individuals are viewed and how they are viewed.

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Mental health stigma is not unique to Kuwait but occurs as a primitive evolutionary response towards perceived weakness of its members. Scientists believe that the family groups and units developed by early man were based on a herd system. Movement and interaction as a herd meant that individuals could be seek protection in the groups from any danger that lurked beyond the horizon. Weaker members were systematically pruned from such groups as a way of ensuring its survival and making certain that it thrives devoid of elements that may slow it down. It is this de-identification that is still present in our basic human conditioning causing us to perceive persons with mental health illnesses as weaker members of society. Understanding the origins of mental health stigma from this perspective is, thus, necessary when seeking to fathom why social exclusion is a topical issue in Kuwait. Persons with mental health problems are, inadvertently viewed as unit members with adaptive challenges (Ghodse). Ostracizing them is meant to establish a particular social hierarchy with regard to their position in society and their access to territory. Using this explanation, one can easily understand why mental health stigma is quite a contemporary challenge. The discovery of commercially viable oil reserves in the late 1930s transformed the living conditions of Kuwaitis across the region. As a result, members of this particular society enjoyed an elevated stratus and had a strong belief in their abilities. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that those persons with mental health issues were immediately shunned and viewed as weak links in the Kuwaiti society. Their presence is always viewed in negative light since many still strongly believe that mental health is a sign of weakness. It is for this very reason that sufferers rarely admit to having any mental disorder since they are acutely aware of the backlash that they would experience for having a mental disorder.

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            Mental health illnesses are commonly associated with black magic and spirit possession in Kuwait. This is because any behavior that seems to depart from the accepted norm is usually interpreted from a supernatural standpoint. The primary reason behind type of societal stigma is a general lack of understanding and appreciation of mental health disorders and their causes (Guerin 23). Notions of witchcraft and demonic possessions end up becoming the only acceptable explanation for pathological behavior exhibited by any member of the Kuwaiti society. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that Kuwait is an Islamic country that typically uses a psycho-spiritual lens. Often times, altered states resulting from various forms of psychosis have been interpreted as a higher state of consciousness that allows one to connect with Allah. In other instances, these states are viewed as a test from Allah and punishment for their wrongdoing. But in a majority of all documented instances, mental health has been directly linked to spirit possession involving a “jinn”. These are spirit entities within the Islamic culture that adopt a variety of forms with their main intent being to harm humanity. Individuals deviating from the norm and conveying the first signs of mental health illnesses are immediately labeled as “possessed” and avoided by the rest of society. Firstly, this happens because many Kuwaitis believe that persons with mental health illness grapple with their current condition as a punishment from Allah. Shunning them is, thus, viewed as one of the best option when dealing with individuals who are blights to society. Secondly, persons suffering from mental health disorders are thought to be so because of the “evil eye” phenomenon. Consequently, cutting contact from such persons is viewed as the only available option to avoid suffering a similar fate. Typically, Kuwaiti families usually present their kin to Islamic faith healers. These individuals are rarely educated on mental health issues with their tool of trade being exorcism. Performing these rituals is meant to rid the sufferers off their “jinn” and restore them to their previous self within the shortest period. Nevertheless, these attempts often end in failure which often prompts the faith healers to apply unconventional techniques to exorcise the evil spirits. These may include whipping or choking the subjects to a point where some pass out from such stressful experiences.

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            Individuals suffering from one or a spectrum of mental health disorders are disfavored and disgraced within Kuwaiti culture. Generally, they are judged harshly by other members of society for suffering from these unusual illnesses. Mental health stigma affects specific suffers and their families within the Kuwaiti context. Being mentally ill means that the patient is constantly ridiculed and their family shamed publicly. This is because the culture in Kuwait has set a particular standard that it expects all its members to espouse. They are put in place as measures with the aim of shaping society according to specific rules. Any person falling short of the socially accepted definition of “normal” is immediately met with hostility and a certain level of stigma. For centuries, Western medicine has accepted mental disorders as any other form of illness that requires the right approach to facilitate treatment (Koenig and Shohaib 24). Talk therapy, taking medication, psycho-social support and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are some of the most popular forms of treatment in Western medicine. The aim of treatment is to make certain that sufferers are well aware of their conditions and can manage their symptoms appropriately. Successful treatment often results in a general improvement in a person’s coping mechanism, allowing them to manage their life appropriately. Conversely, people with mental health disorders are referred to as “crazy” in the wider Kuwaiti context. The implication of this label is that such individuals are rejected by the society.  Usually, it starts from the family level where persons with mental health illnesses are neglected by their kin. Neighbors and friends then cut ties with sufferers in an attempt to save their image and avoid tainting it through associations. Kuwaiti employers have also been known to refuse to hire persons with mental health issues as they are viewed as unmanageable. During other instances, landlords have documented occasions when they have rejected certain tenants based on their mental health status. 

            Mental health stigma in Kuwait is a leading reason why sufferers avoid care or seek it partially. The main reason why this is the case is directly related to the adverse cultural implications that mental health may have on their families. Mental health services in Kuwait are offered by the Psychological Medicine Hospital based in Kuwait City. Although the establishment of this facility was done in good faith, the center is an obstacle to seeking professional help.  Any individual who visits the Psychological Medicine Hospital risks exposing their identity as an individual with a mental health disorder. Many, thus, opt to avoid this stigmatized institution which ultimately worsens their condition. The conservative and collectivist culture present in Kuwait has been blamed for the stigma attached its mental health stigma (McGrath and Reavey). Help-seeking behavior is, therefore, diminished and amplifies the manifestation of such conditions. In Kuwait, individuals with mental health illnesses are generally viewed as incapable since a large majority fail to complete their education. As a result, they are unable to earn a source of living owing to their inability to acquire gainful employment. Their ability to marry and live independent lives is, thus, greatly reduced since mental health stigma ensures that they are avoided by the rest of society.  Furthermore, the media outlets also participate in this misinformation campaign by presenting an inaccurate image of persons with mental health disorders, which only worsens their current condition. Fueling society’s negative perceptions of persons with mental health disorders promotes a host of misconceptions that discourage many sufferers from even considering seeking help (Shepley and Pasha 67).  They are often portrayed as insane individuals who have lost total control of their mental faculties. Solving these prejudices is the first step in curbing mental health stigma in Kuwait and in ending the societal pressures that sufferers bear.

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In conclusion, mental health stigma is a contemporary problem in Kuwait that affects a large segment of the population. It is an evolutionary herd response that is now associated with spirit possession leaving many disfavored and seeking care partially. Ending mental health stigma in Kuwait is, hence, fundamental to the advancement of its citizenry.

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