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Students launch campaign to change perceptions of mental illness

By Areej Abuqudairi - Dec 20,2012 - Last updated at Dec 20,2012

AMMAN — “When we spent time at centres for people with mental illness as part of our practical training, we noticed that the way society perceived them was their biggest problem,” said Nour Safi, a physiotherapy student at the University of Jordan.

Motivated by this experience, Safi and several of her colleagues in the physiotherapy programme have started a campaign, “Brother, this is how I am,” to combat the social stigma associated with mental illness.

The campaign aims at raising the public’s awareness of mental illnesses as well as helping people with mental disorders integrate into society. 

“We want to change people’s perception that people diagnosed with mental diseases are scary or shameful. We noticed through our training courses that most of them are abandoned by their families and friends who think they could be harmful to them and to society,” Safi said. 

The campaign held a fair on campus this week as a “first step”, she added. 

“We spoke to students, teachers and medical staff about mental health issues to raise their awareness of what types of mental disorders could affect people, such as depression, phobia or schizophrenia, as well as the symptoms associated with them.”

The fair also featured handicrafts made by members of Our Step, a local nonprofit organisation that works to support the rights of people with mental illnesses. 

Amera Jamal, the president of Our Step, said that discrimination against people with mental disorders stems from “ignorance” of what mental illness means.  

“Unfortunately, in our society, people with mental illness are still seen as a threat. Some people still believe it is caused by magic or evil. Families tend to hide them or abandon them,” she told The Jordan Times.

According to Jamal, some of Our Step’s approximately 100 members have reported work discrimination due to their illness, including at least one who lost her job as a result.

“Her boss used to tolerate her mood swings for years, because she thought it was triggered by family stress,” she said. “When the boss found out that our member was diagnosed with depression, she asked her to leave, as she assumed people with depression cause harm to others.”

Jamal said that stigma extends to family members as well. 

“In most cases, if people know that a family member has a mental illness, the rest are stigmatised. People will avoid marrying someone if their sister has mental issues.”

One of the campaign’s goals is to create support groups for family members and friends of people with mental illnesses to ensure that they do not become isolated, Safi said. 

The group also plans to coordinate with the Ministry of Education to reach out to schoolchildren. 

“Education about this should start as early as school age,” the student stressed. 

In an interview with The Jordan Times in October, Nayel Adwan, director of the National Centre for Mental Health, said that there was a lack of official statistics on the prevalence of mental health problems in Jordan due to the social stigma that discourages people from reporting them.

“There are no specific numbers on how many people are affected with depression or receive any other forms of mental health treatment due to the sensitivity associated with the subject and social stigma associated with people who report it,” Adwan said.

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