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Djinns, Shame, and Taboos: Opening Up About Mental Health in Morocco

“You have come a long way when you are sitting at a dinner table with family and friends and say ‘I’m seeing a psychiatrist.’”

Rabat – In the wake of this year’s World Mental Health Day organizations around the world are launching new initiatives, in a bid to further promote the importance of mental health. In Morocco, the Danish residency opened its doors to welcome the Moroccan Ministry of Health, representatives of medical science and several stakeholders. 

Raising awareness

Solely dedicated to the treatment of brain diseases, Lundbeck is a Danish pharmaceutical company active in the MEA-region, spanning from Morocco to South-Africa and from Sudan to Iran. Managing Director Henrik Agerbaek-Larsen spoke to Morocco World News about the role of Lundbeck in bolstering treatment for mental health issues.

“Over 700 million people suffer from brain diseases globally, 50% of them do not receive their proper medication.” Said Agerbaek-Larsen.

“Of course, there are some countries where the discrepancy between the availability of medicines and patients who are in need of them is higher. But, on a global scale we see an enormous number of people who have to bear up with their mental health issues, while not receiving their medication,” the director explained. 

Ethical implications

700 million people suffer from brain diseases globally, 50% of them do not receive their medication.” Photo credit: Lundbeck

As a pharmaceutical company with a global revenue of MAD 24 billion, Lundbeck operates on free-market terms with a noticeable foothold in the MEA-region.  Selling medicines means taking ethical implications into consideration.

“Ideally speaking it would be preferable if people did not have to buy medicines in order to have a worthwhile life. But that is not realistic,” Agerbaek-Larsen explained the pragmatic side of pharmaceuticals. “We are living in a world where mental health issues are affecting many people, with half of them not receiving medication.”

He emphasized that “There remains a lot to be done.” 

“At the end of the day, Lundbeck is a company that operates on market terms and we have a business to run. Investing in new medicines requires a research and development period lasting up to ten years. Profits are therefore essential to ensure long-term investments, required for the development of cutting-edge medicines.”

Taboo

According to Agerbaek-Larsen, one of the major reasons why people are not able to receive their medication is because mental health is a taboo subject that people find difficult to discuss. “You have come a long way when you are sitting at a dinner table with family and friends and say ‘I’m seeing a psychiatrist’, or ‘I am taking antidepressants.’ Having that conversation is still difficult in many parts of the world.”

When looking at Morocco, Agerbaek-Larsen thinks not only a change of mindset is necessary to make mental health a topic fit for the dinner table, but raising awareness is just as important. “What you have to realize is that many people in Morocco simply do not know of mental health problems for which you can receive treatment.”

“Diseases such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson, Schizophrenia and Tourette Syndrome are often unknown. But by discussing the prevalence of these diseases and their symptoms, people are better able to understand the importance of mental health and the notion of seeking treatment,” Agerbaek-Larsen concluded. 

Reaching out

As Danish ambassador to Morocco, Nikolaj Harris echoes this opinion. “Twenty years ago we did not have the same debates concerning mental health as we do nowadays. Mental health problems were lumped together into one big group and treated much less diligently. In the West, this debate has been developing for the last years, and in Morocco that debate is slowly starting to take off as well.”

But, as Harris stresses, talking about mental health is difficult. “As frustrating as it may be, it can be quite difficult to reach out to someone who is suffering from mental health issues. Mental health issues are insidious and have devastating long term effects on people and society as a whole. We are talking about crippling anxiety, burnouts but also self-inflicted malnutrition and suicide attempts.”

Dr. El Ammouri Adil giving a presentation. Photo credit,El Ammouri Adil

Djinns

A doctor in the medical field, El Ammouri Adil has firsthand experience of Morocco’s shortcomings in the field of mental health. “The demand for psychiatrists in Morocco is enormous. What you have to realize is that there are only about 400 psychiatrists working in Morocco, on a population of 34 million,” according to Adil.

The need for more psychiatrists is evident. Only last year the Ministry of Health published figures, indicating 26% percent of the Moroccan population suffer from depression. “There are many reasons why people suffer from depression, it is passed down hereditary, the personal experience of the patient, using drugs,” Adil explained.

But, as Adil elaborates, the biggest problem in Morocco is the taboo revolving around mental health. The overwhelming majority of Moroccans simply don’t consider mental health issues to be genuine illness.

“The situation is exacerbated by the stigma you are branded with. You see, it is not uncommon for Moroccans to regard mental health issues born out of a lack of character. People, especially in rural areas, believe Djinns [demons] are inside of you, on account of you having done something evil. That is among else why mental health issues in Morocco are taboo, they ultimately relate to you as a person,” Adil concluded.