Lost in Yemen’s streets

Published on 2 February 2012 in Report
Marwa Najmaldeen (author)

Marwa Najmaldeen

Many mentally ill people have lived on Sana’a’s streets for dozens of years.

Many mentally ill people have lived on Sana’a’s streets for dozens of years.

In the Arab world in general – but in Yemen in particular – mental disorders are associated with myths, superstitions and misconceptions about magic and the supernatural world. Such associations in Yemen coexist with extremely trying external circumstances for the mentally ill. In Sa'ada, for example, shell blasts and gunfire, the fleeing of homes and visible corpses further damage peoples' psyches. Moreover, phenomena such as high levels of internal immigration, high poverty rates, and illiteracy only further compound the problem.

“The man wears tattered dirty clothes, his hair is mussed, and his face has not been washed in ages. He's lived in a back street behind this oil petrol station for more than six years,” said Saif Mohammad, who works at the station.

“He lives in the street with cardboard boxes for a mattress and covers his body with a grubby blanket,” said Mohammad, who added that the man draws well and has wonderful handwriting.

Mohammad said that kind people sometimes take him to the barber, wash him and give him clean clothes, but just two or three months later will arrive back and “see him in the same miserable state and again help him, give him some food, and provide him with paper to write and draw on.” 

Sometimes, “madmen” are not as pacific as this particular man.

“They might slap you in the face right out of the blue,” Othman Mahmoud, an English language teacher, said. “One day I was walking along the street when a man slapped me across the face,” said Mahmoud, who slapped the man back in self-defense.

Exchanged slaps became a fight with the man, who soon turned out to be “strong.” They fought until two people came on the scene and ended the fight between them.

Mahmoud said that ever since, when he sees a mentally man, he either waits for the other to change his path or changes his own route so that there's no “possibility of a fight.”

“The crazy people in the streets scare the hell out of me. They walk in the streets like stray dogs and no one can stop them.”

Who are the mentally ill people in the streets?

For Abdullah Nasher, a grocery store owner, some of the mentally ill “are actually from the political and national security...everybody knows this.”

“Some national and political security officers would rather receive bonuses to work as undercover agents, pretending to live like crazy people. They imagine that they help their country in this dirty way, while they can in fact do this in other ways,” he said.

He said that such people are now everywhere - on the bus, in the street, and in restaurants.

Nasher repeated a Yemeni saying about crazy people that says, “Do not cry your eyes out for someone who died. But cry when someone loses their mind.”

The condition of those who have mental disorders is only getting worse with the passage of time due to a lack of health and psychological care, especially after the Ministry of Health closed its mental care unit. The ministry replaced the unit with the National Program for Mental Health Care. The program, however, does not provide for medications or treatment.

There exist no official reports with any accuracy or reliability about mental health in Yemen. According to estimates carried out in 2005 and 2006 by the Yemeni Association for Mental Health, the Arab Resource Collective, and the World Health Organization, there are only 45 working psychiatrists in Yemen.

This translates to about one psychiatrist for every 500 thousand people in the country.

There are nearly 3,000 social workers working in 100 in academic institutions, 75 in the health sector and 45 in social affairs, and associations. In the whole country, there are only four mental health hospitals with a capacity of approximately 850 beds. The four hospitals are in Sana'a, Aden, Taiz and Hodeida. There are no special sections for children, but only for men and women.

People who experience the trauma of losing a relative, a life partner, who have suffered serious accidents, injuries, or illnesses, or face professional or emotional failure can be termed psychological help seekers. There are estimates that for these reasons, up to four million people in Yemen are in need of psychological help or treatment.

Um Redhwan, a housewife, said that she cannot tolerate people in the street with mental disorders, as they are “basically eyes for the national and political security services.”

“They act crazy so that they can do whatever they want. No one can tell them anything because they are supposed to be mentally ill,” she said.

She added that after observing such people, she's wondered how a crazy guy can be sane enough to enter a grocery store, operate the water cooler and, when he's finished drinking, politely wipe drops of water from his chin.

“One day, I saw a crazy man running naked in the street. He was in a sexual frenzy and running after men and women. It was so pathetic, but what can we do if there aren't enough hospitals?” asked Mohammad Mansour, a graphic designer.

Mansour feels sympathy towards such mentally ill individuals, especially when he knows that some mental clinics can be found in prisons, “as if they had committed a crime.” He said that he also feels sympathy for national and political security officers who pretend to be crazy for financial incentives.