#AsktheExpert: What Mental Illness in Ramadan 2016 Series Says about Society

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This year we noticed a trend in the Ramadan TV show season. At least three of the biggest female names in the industry had their eagerly anticipated television dramas revolve around mental illnesses, psychiatric institutions or both. The legendary Yosra, Ramadan’s top contender for the past three years Nelly Karim, and successful Ghada Abdel Razek all tackled the issue.

With this buzz about problems to the psyche and mental illness (not disease!), we sought the expert opinion of practicing psychotherapist Kenzy Fahmy on these shows, what she thinks of their portrayal of psychological problems and what all this tells us about Egyptian society. Below is her take on whether these shows are actually good portrayals and if they can help raise awareness of the cause.

Some of these shows have resonated quite strongly with the audience. Do you think they portray the patients and their problems accurately?
To be honest I’ve only watched a few episodes of Sokout Hor, but what I did see was eerily reminiscent of my days working in a female psychiatric ward. Their portrayal of the dynamics and relationships that form between the patients and the way each character’s particular illness plays into those dynamics were very close to reality. They show how powerful the mind can be in terms of creating its own reality and how persistent and all encompassing that reality can become. The writers also did a good job at portraying the different struggles that people face when battling mental illness, from the more obvious ones like social stigma, to the ones people are less aware of, like the problems associated with reintegrating back into society.

Do you think it’s a positive or negative thing that mental health is such a prominent issue in the entertainment industry these days? What are the pros and/or cons of such wide exposure?
It really depends on how it’s portrayed, but I think ultimately it’s a positive thing. Little is known about mental illness, not just in Egypt but globally as well, so the exposure is much needed. However, while the entertainment industry is a great tool for getting information across to a large number of people, it also has a tendency to distort the truth in exchange for better ratings, and this is where the danger lies. If they don’t depict mental illness accurately, and fairly, we run the risk of propagating inaccurate stereotypes, which are both harmful and socially isolating for the patients.

Since the industry is focusing on it this much, what’s the most important thing they should emphasize?
It’s hard to pick just one thing, but I do think it’s especially important to normalize mental illness and encourage people to approach it the way they would approach any other illness. It’s important that we keep working to remove the stigma associated with it.

If you were advising these shows or future ones, what would you tell them to do differently? In other words, what do you think they neglected that the audience needs to know?
I’m not sure I would tell them to do anything differently. Writer Mariam Naoum of Sokout Hor and her team have been doing an excellent job so far. Her shows not only accurately portray what it’s like to live with a psychological disorder here in Egypt, but they also show what it’s like for the families as well as the practitioners. Sokout Hor was particularly impressive because they obviously made it a point to portray different disorders and to show that mental illness can come in many different forms, affecting all kinds of people. We have definitely come a long way.

On another note, what does it say about our society that we need so many shows about mental health/illness?
I don’t know if I would say we need these shows. I think the reason so many exist is because mental illness is a subject that fascinates people, but I don’t think this is unique to our society, or to our time. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that so little is understood and yet it is something that affects us all in some way or another; people seem to have a desire to know and understand more, which is great to see.

We saw many characters that we’d categorize as “normal” or who would remind us of ourselves and people we know. We saw that they were actually not mentally healthy, or that they suffered psychologically even if they weren’t hospitalized. Does this mean we are all in need of therapists? And do you think this is something particular to our society or the way we live?
I do think we all need some form of therapy, but that doesn’t mean we’re all mentally ill. Psychological suffering is a part of the human condition; it’s the price we have to pay for our increased awareness and advanced intellect. Some people are more resilient than others; they’re better at coping with life’s stress and usually have strong support systems in place. Most of us, however, will need professional help at some point in our lives and that’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Seeking psychological or psychiatric treatment should be encouraged in the same way you would encourage someone with diabetes to see a doctor. None of this is particular to our society, but we have definitely seen a surge in demand for mental health services in Egypt. This is not because more people are suffering, but because we are beginning to realize that there is nothing wrong with seeking professional help.

 

Lama is a Political Scientist, historian and academic, a bibliophile, a writer, a jewelry freak and a human being. Having devoured every book that has come her way since she could read, she believes in the power of words and hopes to put hers to good use; to remain silent is to give up. She appreciates challenges, fun company, movies, the occasional trip somewhere new and a good laugh.

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