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CommunityMental HealthGetting past the stigma of therapy for Arabs

Nawar Sourij is a UK-based psychotherapist and life coach who joined The Livehealthy Podcast (Arabic) earlier this year to talk about her work, how learning about biology and psychotherapy in general can help people and why therapy is different for Arabs, and still the focus of a lot of stigma and shame. Nawar trained in neuroscience and integrated psychotherapy at the University of Leeds and the University of Birmingham. She decided to specialize in integrated...
Reeneh YousefSeptember 23, 202213 min
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Nawar Sourij psychotherapy for ArabsNawar Sourij

Nawar Sourij is a UK-based psychotherapist and life coach who joined The Livehealthy Podcast (Arabic) earlier this year to talk about her work, how learning about biology and psychotherapy in general can help people and why therapy is different for Arabs, and still the focus of a lot of stigma and shame.

Nawar trained in neuroscience and integrated psychotherapy at the University of Leeds and the University of Birmingham. She decided to specialize in integrated psychotherapy after her own personal experience being helped by a therapist while going through a divorce, and now delivers her services throughout the world, as well as the Arab region. 

Nawar provides support and psychological treatment for victims of sexual abuse in the UK, and she also delivers therapy in Arabic. She reports that while most of her Arab clients prefer a therapist with an Arab background, they prefer to communicate in English. 

She does her work on Bright Shift, one of the few multilingual online therapy platforms in the UAE and the GCC region. Bright Shift supports mental health and wellness programs for companies and employees, offers therapy sessions and lessons for individuals as well as mindfulness and meditation classes, and other services all delivered online by professional and licensed therapists who care about your mental and emotional health.

Are the psychological problems or difficulties faced by Arab clients different from other regions?

The difference in the nature of the roots of psychological problems (such as emotional neglect in childhood, unhealthy attachment to parents, various psychological traumas) effects and the nature of dealing with those problems may differ.

For Arabs or Muslims, there is resistance to treatment, such as the difference in some concepts, they believe that the cause of psychological problems may be due to weak faith, and as a Muslim, his faith must be strong, and there are also some false beliefs that the client would have psychological fragility if he went to psychological treatment and this results in self-flagellation.

With regard to getting rid of anger towards parents, some clients may suffer from severe resistance for fear of being exposed to parents’ anger or fear of reprimand that they may be exposed to, and this may make us reach a stage of treatment that cannot be progressed, as we through the treatment plan must reach the roots of a problem by going deep into a certain stage of childhood to get rid of those roots. Because these patients had a feeling of guilt towards their parents, this could delay treatment. Some patients also believe that if they talk about their parents and their suffering with them, this is something that may offend their parents and that it may be considered forbidden or a form of disobedience to parents.

How do you deal with those cases?

We first direct them that in order to reach the treatment, we must skip that stage, and clarify some matters to them: that Islam is a just religion, and as there is disobedience and religion, there is an equivalent to the so-called disobedience of children.

We make it clear that they are here in a safe place where they can express everything that is on their mind or feeling, and that they can speak freely, and the patient is here for treatment and not to blame or accuse someone.

And that the stage of disclosure or speaking is part of the treatment plan, as it helps to overcome the stage of anger and get rid of it, and we must talk to find out the reasons and overcome the stage of anger so that we do not continue to suppress these feelings so that things do not get worse.

And that a safe space to talk about our feelings may help us heal and get rid of this anger and thus reach the stage of parental sympathy and mercy.

The inner anger that is not released or expressed will remain trapped inside the patient and consequently the relationship with the parents will deteriorate further.

Expressing anger and its causes and disclosing what he may have suffered in his childhood from his parents may make us reach a stage to explain to the patient that his parents may have suffered from some problems in their childhood, which made them unconsciously abuse their children.

Thus, we can reach the stage of forgiveness and mercy and start a new stage of sympathy and tolerance and repair the relationship between them, so that the patient does not continue to suffer from these feelings and thus transmits them to his children in the future.

The second difference is unique masculinity or toxic relationships, or as it is called (individualism). From the Islamic perspective, every wrongdoer has his punishment, so no person is held accountable for the wrongdoing of another person, regardless of the relationship he has with him.

There are many Quranic verses that explain this, but unfortunately in Western societies this is applied, but in Arab and Islamic countries it may not be applied.

An example of this: If the patient is a victim of harassment from a member of his family, in Western societies the victim speaks and discloses this and continues her normal and social life without shame, but if that problem is in an Arab society, the victim may worsen her condition and continue to suffer in addition to stigma and shame that she, her family, and even the entire tribe may feel even though she is a victim and has no guilt.

I had one of the Western patients whose sister was sexually harassed by her father, and he was punished with imprisonment. She turned to the law and completed her professional and private life without embarrassment or shame. Those societies apply the law of individuality.

How can Arab and Islamic societies overcome such issues or problems?

Currently, there is a lot of awareness in Arab societies, and these problems can be overcome by increasing education and awareness.

In the event that some patients face rejection and lack of acceptance from their family or communit, what is your advice?

You may not be responsible for the situation you have reached, and you are not the cause of what you suffer from, but you are responsible for your treatment and you must motivate yourself to get out of that psychological crisis that you suffer from, and to overcome that stigma with diplomacy, the names can be changed from a psychotherapist to a life coach or Psychological counselor or social counselor, i.e. language that society understands can be used without fear.

What is your advice to parents who advise prayer over therapy? 

Tell these parents that if your children feel stomach or heart pain, you will resort to a doctor and then resort to spiritual treatment, as well as psychological treatment should be resorted to in the event of psychological trauma because it may later lead to physical diseases, in addition to spiritual treatment and supplication. Psychotherapy has been around since ancient times and there is a lot of evidence and studies on that.

Reeneh Yousef

Reeneh Yousef has worked in media since 2007, spending at decade at Abu Dhabi Media before joining Livehealthy. She loves walking, reading and going to the gym.

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