Few places are more stressful to live in than the Gaza Strip: One of the most overcrowded territories on earth, its inhabitants live under siege, with the constant threat of Israeli air raids and shelling.
Data from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor show that 91 percent of Gaza children are suffering from trauma and psychological disorders as a result of the fighting in May.
Yet Gaza has only four qualified psychiatrists for a population of more than two million—that compares, for example, to 60 for Jordan’s population of 5.33 million.
That may soon change, following a decision by the Islamic University of Gaza to offer a specialized diploma in psychiatry, starting next year, for graduates in the Faculty of Medicine.
“There is a considerable need for this major, especially in light of the absence of any fellowship programs,” Fadel Naim, dean of the faculty, said in an interview via Zoom.
“There is a considerable need for this major, especially in light of the absence of any fellowship programs.”Fadel Naim
Dean of the faculty
Neither the Islamic University nor any of Gaza’s six medical colleges has so far offered a specialized psychiatry program. Those wishing to study abroad face travel restrictions imposed as part of the siege.
Until now, psychiatry, which focuses on mental illness, diagnosis and treatment, has been included as part of a course on psychology, the study of the human mind and its functions.
Urgent Need for Psychiatry
The new diploma was prepared by domestic and diaspora Palestinian experts. Twenty students are expected to enroll over the next 18 months to qualify as general practitioners working in psychiatry.
“We have contacted the Ministry of Higher Education in Ramallah to provide the assistance to obtain an accreditation for the professional diploma in psychiatry from the Palestinian Medical Council, in light of the urgent need for psychiatry within the Strip,” said Naim.
The diploma includes an introduction to mental diseases and the foundations of diagnosis based on international norms, as well as the most important treatments used, especially those appropriate to trauma in Gaza, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and play therapy for children, according to Yasser Abu Jamei, one of the experts who helped in putting together the diploma curriculum.
“It will be the first accredited academic program for physicians in the field of psychiatry, which will enhance physicians with the skills necessary to work with patients, in addition to the theoretical aspect,” said Jamei, who is also director general of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, one of the key mental-health services providers in the Gaza Strip.
There is only one psychiatric hospital in the Gaza Strip, which suffers from a great shortage of equipment and medicine and has only 20 beds, according to Naim.
Ayoub Abu Nimr, a senior student in the Faculty of Medicine, believes that many people consider mental health a “secondary” matter, despite the wars, sieges, and daily living and economic constraints which threaten their mental well-being.
Stigma Around Mental-Health Issues
Baraa Al Akhras, a senior medicine student who lives in the Gaza Strip, pointed out another difficulty, noting that the local culture regards mental disorders as a social stigma.
“It is believed that treating the patients is useless, or that seeing a psychiatrist is considered as a stigma that haunts the patient within the surrounding community, which discourages many students from choosing this major,” she said.
“It is believed that treating the patients is useless, or that seeing a psychiatrist is considered as a stigma that haunts the patient within the surrounding community, which discourages many students from choosing this major.”Baraa Al Akhras
A senior medical student in the Gaza Strip
According to Abu Nimr, universities in the Gaza Strip show little interest in providing psychological support services to students in general, and especially to medical students. (See a related article, “Mental-Health Care on Arab Campuses Is Increasing—Slowly.”)
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However, Naim, the faculty dean, is optimistic about the impact that the new diploma program will have.
“We strive to encourage students to join the new program due to its significant importance and the considerable need for it,” he said. “To this end, we will offer some scholarships and exemptions from paying tuition fees, while providing online training courses to attract the largest number of students for this major.”