Some 40 imams from mosques in the so-called "triangle" – the Wadi Ara region – are participating in a unique training program for changing perceptions of mental illness in Arab Israeli society.
"Arab society has a primitive attitude to mental illness, which causes many sufferers to remain at home and not use the services available to them," say staff at JDC in Israel which initiated the program with the Interior Ministry and the Tauber Fund. "The imams are leaders in their communities and have the ability to change attitudes, pass on information about rights and services, and encourage sufferers and families to use services developed for them."
The imams will take part in five weekly meetings, dealing with issues like the religious aspects, ways of coping, getting to know sufferers and their families in Arab society, legal issues and services, the effects of medication, mental illness from a medical point of view, and ideas for social change.
"Dealing with mental illness sufferers seemed to me to be clear and organized, with recognized treatment," says Zaid Abu Muah, one of the participants. "Now you shake up the conventions I thought I knew… and compel us to cope with one of the most difficult issues in society."
The imams at the first meeting (Photo: Yifat Shahak)
The program is being offered as part of the JDC's Masira program to assist people with disabilities in Arab Israeli society, and includes religious figures from the Muslim, Druze and Christian communities.
Few of those suffering mental illness in Israeli Arab society make use of the services available to them by law. Some frameworks treat extreme cases, but many sufferers fall through the cracks, and there are insufficient service outlets.
Attitudes: From acceptance to ostracism
"There is a gap between the acceptance and compassion that the religions (Islam, Christianity and the Druze religion) demand towards those with disabilities and the reality on the ground," says Prof. Hawala Abu Bakar from Emeq Yezreel College and Al-Qasemi College, who specializes in mental illness in Arab Israeli society. "Attitudes range between two extremes – acceptance which can even include encouragement to marry, and ostracism, especially towards those with rare deformities or those who are violent towards themselves or the environment."
"Factors such as education, salary level and level of religiosity of the family also positively affect attitudes towards those with disabilities," she continues. "There is also a difference between attitudes towards men and women, with a tendency to isolate women more than men."
Prof. Abu Bakar also notes that sufferers may be diagnosed as irritable, shy, solitary or anti-social.
"When people suffer from chronic psychiatric problems, they often seek help in religious rites or magic, and turn to medical treatment only after the 'popular' methods have failed. They usually try various treatments at the same time."
Prof. Abu Bakar agrees that attitudes may be changed via the workshop for imams, noting that when mental health is perceived as something communal, affecting the community, the community must be involved in debates about the problem and treatment.
"Religious figures (of all religions) are in positions of influence and the public sees them as societal and spiritual guides and turn to them for advice and guidance," she says. "They are also figures of authority in their communities and can guide families in times of distress. Today, the imams' audience is young and university-educated and thus we should treat them as agents of positive change."
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