Researchers and educators in the Arab world are getting signals that they need to focus on support for isolated young people who are reporting higher levels of anxiety as they try to study online during the Covid-19 emergency.
Arab academics have been tackling this issue in a series of new research projects, which may add much-needed data to the discussion.
“Interest in mental health has shot up—it’s propelled people who don’t normally talk about this issue to think about it,” says Rania Atalla, a psychotherapist and mental health professional based in Amman who spoke at a webinar on Monday on the mental health effects of Covid-19 that was organized by the Amman branch of the Columbia Global Centers. “I think a lot of us are hoping this will continue after the pandemic.”
One of the studies actually started out as a way to gauge the mental health consequences of Lebanon’s ongoing economic and political quagmire. “In any kind of crisis there’s anxiety because you might lose your job and money, so there’s often an increase of depression,” explains Ismael Maatouk, a researcher at the Clemenceau Medical Center, in Beirut.
But as the novel coronavirus crisis unfolded, the research quickly morphed to also look into the effects of the pandemic on mental health. Maatouk has so far surveyed 225 individuals—he is aiming for at least 400—asking questions via WhatsApp about whether participants have been isolating themselves, and if so to what degree, along with other questions to estimate their anxiety levels.
Using WhatsApp to conduct the survey is a weakness in the study design, the researcher acknowledges, because it means the sample is not random. Someone with a smartphone and a data plan is more likely to be wealthy than poor. But Maatouk says that’s the best he can do, given the lockdown rules. “We can’t exactly go and meet people these days,” he says.