By Nada Faris
Special to The Times, Kuwait
In Memory of Ali Khaled Yasser
For this International Women’s Day, 8 March 2021, I felt compelled to highlight Dalal and Alaa Alhomaizi’s campaign SPEAK (Standing for Psychological and Education Awareness in Kuwait.) Dalal and Alaa are twins who spent years promoting the importance of mental health across the country. They managed to raise almost US$300,000 to stage a major conference with Kuwait’s Ministry of Health, and in 2015 the sisters gave a TEDx talk at Teachers College. In their speech, the Kuwaiti sisters mention the amplified nature of the stigma people suffering from mental illness experience in Kuwait. Isolated and maltreated, the neurodivergent have to “bear the shame of disgracing their family’s reputation” for contaminating their entire family line with their disorder (most never marry as a result), and they have to defend themselves against accusations of demonic possession and weakened faith.
Dalal and Alaa Alhomaizi’s campaign was on my mind recently because on 23 February an eleven-year-old Kuwaiti national (Ali Khaled Yasser) committed suicide. His death sparked conversations on social media. One tweet that went viral said:
Please, if you have suicidal thoughts, even if they are just thoughts, ask for mental help. There are doctors and counselors who provide services for free or for a nominal price. Please ask for help. Do not melt our hearts. (My translation)
As was expected from a viral tweet, responses varied; however, one in particular caught my attention. The tweet that stood out for me was by a Kuwaiti activist who campaigns for the rights of minorities. It said:
I’m a big advocate of getting mental health support when you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide. But I can’t help but wonder how useful mental healthcare would be when the issue is with systemic racism driving you towards despair and you have no control over changing it. (Original tweet)
Unfortunately, this tweet is emblematic of a nationwide misconception about mental health, and about healthcare as a human right. For example, a tweet that followed agreed with the sentiment that mental healthcare might be useless in the face of sustained social and political pressures stemming from other missing rights (such as education). The other tweet, originally written in both Arabic and English, said:
Exactly. People can provide their services in good faith, but do you believe a child deprived of education, who goes out to sell [items] on the street every day [for his livelihood], who knows that he has no future, will regularly go to his appointments with a therapist after work, just to learn how to adapt to these circumstances? I’m sorry this is ridiculous. Seems like we’re completely ignoring the root. (The Arabic section is translated into English for consistency)
Why are we pitting education against mental healthcare and acting as if one right cancels out the other, especially if the intention is to advocate for minorities to receive rights that have been denied them? How is it that we have rendered mental health, as another tweet puts it, as a mere privilege:
Mental health is a luxury. Mental health is the last thing an exploited minority thinks about who is unable to find a morsel of food. The effective treatment is [political] emancipation and rights. (My translation)
Again, this way of thinking, reducing mental health to “the last thing” that someone who is experiencing harrowing living circumstances would think about, is dangerous especially if it is coming out of a contingent who support minorities. Another responder echoed this stance, writing:
A passport and an immigration visa are better than any cure as long as there is no intention to end the deliberate restrictions on people. (My translation)
Dalal and Alaa Alhomaizi end their TEDx talk with a question and a challenge: “What can you do as a single member of society to end the stigma of mental illness?” Their answer is simply: Speak up. Therefore, as a Kuwaiti writer and teaching-artist (who suffers from bipolar) I decided to honor the work of the Alhomaizi sisters and use my voice to intervene in this conversation.
Here is how The World Health Organization defines healthcare:
The right to health is one of a set of internationally agreed human rights standards, and is inseparable or ‘indivisible’ from these other rights. This means achieving the right to health is both central to, and dependent upon, the realisation of other human rights, to food, housing, work, education, information, and participation.
From the outset, then, any genuine discussion of healthcare as a right already encompasses the others. There is no need to separate healthcare from, say, education. Minorities already suffer from ‘survivor’s guilt’, which Dictionary.com defines as: “feelings of guilt for having survived a catastrophe in which others died.” Minorities already feel pain for the peers they lost and shame for the life they still possess. Attempting to convince them further that their mental health is a luxury is cruel.
There are many in Kuwait who dismiss mental health because they confuse it with toxic positivity. Konstantin Lukin writes in an article published on Psychology Today, “Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look on the Bright Side:”
The phrase “toxic positivity” refers to the concept that keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions.
It must be emphasized that mental healthcare does not mean teaching people how to feel good about their horrible lives (toxic positivity). MentalHealth.gov explains rather that:
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.
Human beings are complex creatures; some with mental illnesses suffer from breakdowns in brain networking and chemical messaging, and others struggle from problems in thinking and behavior. These types of mental issues are frequently caused or aggravated by changes in physical functions or complications in body processes. They are, additionally, impacted by unstable social circumstances that trigger stress, fear, etc.
Mental healthcare means receiving the kind of attention, resources, and knowledge that improve one’s capacity to make critical and creative choices in their daily lives. This ability is fundamental for anyone in general, but even more so for minorities in the midst of various struggles. Mental healthcare can help people become more resilient, enjoy better social skills (which are crucial in organizing resistance), and generate more energy throughout the day, week, month, etc.
Slavoj Žižek writes in Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Human Capital, “The true novelty of the French Revolution resides in the distinction between citizens’ rights and human rights. One should reject here the classic Marxist notion of human rights as the rights of the members of the bourgeois civil society. While citizens are defined by the political order of a sovereign state, ‘human’ is what remains of a citizen when he or she is deprived of citizenship . . . Without this compass we inevitably regress to barbarism” (98-99).
Borrowing from the French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner, author of Relire la révolution (Rereading the revolution), Žižek explains: “Human rights are ‘natural rights’” (99), meaning that they are “more basic than the right to organize public meetings, to practice free speech, to freely express opinions, and so on. Before that comes the material needs of a body: water, food, hygiene, minimal space for privacy. If individuals are deprived of this, their ‘higher’ human disappears. Human rights are, first, basic material rights: toilets, kitchens, healthcare [my emphasis]” (99-100).
How then to respond to the Kuwaiti activist’s rhetorical question (“I can’t help but wonder how useful mental healthcare would be when the issue is with systemic racism driving you towards despair and you have no control over changing it”)? The way that the question is phrased misleads readers about healthcare’s indivisibility from other rights and confuses mental healthcare with toxic positivity. Therefore, if our intention is not to raddle minorities with more survivor’s guilt, then we shouldn’t even say “mental healthcare is useful,” but rather emphasize unequivocally that minorities deserve affordable access to safe spaces with professionals who can equip them with knowledge and resources to tackle psychic, somatic, and social areas of imbalances—because that is their human right. In fact, the 38th Article and the first bullet point in the 39th Article of the League of Arab States’s Arab Charter on Human Rights (written on 22 May, 2004 and entered into force 15 March, 2008) state:
Article 38: Every person has the right to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, which ensures their well-being and a decent life, including food, clothing, housing, services and the right to a healthy environment. The States parties shall take the necessary measures commensurate with their resources to guarantee these rights.
Article 39: 1. The States parties recognize the right of every member of society to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and the right of the citizen to free basic health-care services and to have access to medical facilities without discrimination of any kind.
If our states are not yet delivering upon their promises the solution is to fight harder for these rights rather than to dismiss them as “useless.” After all, groups are composed of individuals: human beings with human needs. The more that people who struggle in the social, political, and economic realms can access mental healthcare services — enabling them to make better critical and creative decisions (and survive) — the more that this will positively impact their groups. Saying otherwise displays a dangerous inclination toward barbarism.
I end this piece with Dalal and Alaa Alhomaizi’s question (“What can you do as a single member of society to end the stigma of mental illness?”), and suggest that if you are a mental health professional, please publicize your willingness to see minorities for free (or for a nominal price); and if you belong to a disenfranchised group in Kuwait know that your mental health is not a luxury or a waste of time and resources. The integrity of your humanity is not up for haggling by activists who have failed in their advocation for your rights. You are not selfish if you need to seek help. In fact, your mental health directly impacts your resilience, creativity, and your critical faculties. Hence, receiving mental healthcare will benefit your community.
Lastly, dear reader, I leave you with the same question: if you are neither a mental health professional nor someone struggling with mental health, how might you contribute to the conversation?
Nada Faris has earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. In 2018, she received an Arab Woman Award from Harper’s Bazaar Arabia for her impact on Kuwait’s creative sector. She is an Honorary Fellow in Writing at Iowa University’s International Writing Program (IWP) Fall 2013, an alumna of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) April 2018, USA: Empowering Youth Through the Performing Arts, and the author of three international books.
Website: www.nadafaris.comTwitter: @nadafaris