World Mental Health Day: Fluctuating between hope and despair

25 October 2020

Alaa, JRS Lebanon social worker, decorating one of our educational centre to celebrate the students' graduation.
Alaa, JRS Lebanon social worker, decorating one of our educational centre to celebrate the students' graduation.

When a loved one goes missing with no clear answer about their fate, their family and friends live in limbo not knowing what happened but clinging to the hope that they will return home safely someday soon. Since the start of the war in Syria in 2011, thousands have gone missing. The uncertainty affects the emotional well-being of families, causing distress and straining family relations.

Wissam, a 29-year-old mother of two, lived in a state of confusion and grief for five long years after her husband went to work one day and never came back. Her search for her husband in hospitals and police stations across Syria turned up nothing; she was simply told that he had disappeared.

In 2015, as the situation in Syria worsened, Wissam decided to move with her children and parents to Lebanon. While the family was able to leave the war behind, Wissam struggled to tell her children the reason their father was no longer with them.  Whenever her children would ask about the whereabouts of their father and why he was gone, Wissam merely told them that he was out of the country or that he was missing. Wissam would never talk to her children about their father, nor show them his picture.  The topic was too painful to discuss.

“I was expecting that my husband will come back and we will continue our life together with our children.”

The situation had a significant impact on Wissam’s son Samer*, who was five years old at the time his father disappeared. Samer became a secretive and isolated child. The relationship between Wissam and her son was fragile and unstable. “I didn’t know what to tell my son, and he was not an easy-going child. Samer lost weight because he missed his father a great deal and suffered from alopecia for six years due to his situation,” explains Wissam. Samer was continuously in a bad mood and did not know how to express his feelings or opinions. When anyone asked him about his father, Samer would cry, not knowing what to do in such situations.  “When I used to take Samer to his school he used to see other students with their fathers, and that made Samer feel so sad, but he never expressed that,” says his mother.

It was not until 2019 that Wissam learned of her husband’s death, five years after he went missing.  “I was expecting that my husband will come back and we will continue our life together with our children,” says Wissam painfully.

 

Transformation through JRS mental health services

In 2017, Wissam’s friends introduced her to the JRS centre in Baalbek. Wissam’s friends convinced her to register at the centre so that she could enjoy herself in a safe environment while also learning new skills. Wissam enrolled in a variety of courses at the centre, including makeup, hairdressing, computer, sewing, and wool. Impressively, Wissam completed both level one and level two of each course. “The centre environment was very cozy and the people there were very friendly, and all the courses that I took were useful,” says Wissam.  After two years of attending the centre, Wissam summoned the courage to open up to Alaa, the social centre social worker. Wissam told Alaa about the circumstances which led her to Lebanon and her strained relationship with her son. After three psychosocial sessions with Alaa, Wissam was referred to Amara, JRS’s clinical psychologist in Baalbek, who worked with Wissam on how to improve relations with her son and focus on Wissam’s own well-being.

All JRS social workers are trained by the JRS MHPSS project director to detect, support, and refer mental health cases. Additionally, the JRS MHPSS project director provides on-the-job support to all social workers as well as psychologists thereby ensuring quality of care is provided to all mental health cases.

“I learned from Amara that it is very important to talk to my son about his father, to tell him what he used to do, what he looks like, and to show him his photos and videos.”

Wissam would never talk to her children about their father, erasing him from their lives, and was unaware of the consequences this may have on her children. “I thought I could compensate everything, even the father’s role, by going out with my children and taking care of them,” explains Wissam. Amara explained to Wissam how these actions are detrimental toward her son. “I learned from Amara that it is very important to talk to my son about his father, to tell him what he used to do, what he looks like, and to show him his photos and videos. She advised me to remind him how he used to play with him, and how he enjoyed pampering him.  In this way, I can tell him how much he used to love him,” confides Wissam.

Wissam used to support anyone who would yell at her children thinking that was the right thing to do. Amara suggested Wissam adopt more positive parenting skills and show others how much she loves her children and that she will defend them in all situations. ” Amara told me that I should be more flexible and affectionate with my children, to show them how much I care, and actively listen to them. She explained to me how important it is to support them and prevent anyone from hurting them.”  After working with Wissam in one-on-one sessions, Amara then met Samer and began working with him on expressing his feelings through different techniques, such as drawing.

The sessions proved to be transformative for both Wissam and Samer.  Wissam started to notice the change in her interactions with her children and became a more confident person. “I used to get angry very easily, but now I am a calmer person, and have become more social. I have the courage to say what I think, and to say ‘No’ when I don’t feel like doing something,” says Wissam.

Samer now talks to his mother about everything. Their relationship has improved immensely after only a few sessions with the psychologist.  “Samer now shares with me his daily routine, and we always have conversations about any situation he encounters. He is able now to stand up for his beliefs, to say what he likes and what he doesn’t, and he is no longer suffering from alopecia,” says Wissam excitedly.

“I used to get angry very easily, but now I am a calmer person, and have become more social. I have the courage to say what I think, and to say ‘No’ when I don’t feel like doing something,” says Wissam.

e asked Alaa, the social worker, about Wissam’s transformation. “I worked with Wissam to improve her relationship with her son. Now she can practice her role as a mom in a better way, she takes his opinion into consideration, and initiates more conversations with him. Obviously, she has a stronger personality now and knows her self-worth. She mingles among others and builds connections in terms of work in the makeup field [outside of the JRS social centre].”

Amara, the clinical psychologist, focused on Wissam’s image of herself, on her image of the man she might marry in the future, and her relationship with her son and her parents. “Wissam had no hope and dreams for the future, she used to see herself as someone who does household chores only, and never complained about that, but she was not feeling good about that. She wanted to marry someone who could support her financially and give her shelter. Now, Wissam is very proud of herself, she is a productive and proactive woman who can work when the opportunity is available. Her relationship with her children became healthier and more balanced. She is no longer looking for a man to support her financially, but rather for someone who can be a good partner and motivates her,” explains Amara.

Samer recently completed the fourth grade at a JRS school in Baalbek. Wissam bought him a laptop so that he can look at his father’s photos and watch videos of him whenever he wishes. Despite not being with them physically, Samer remembers his father and can feel his presence.

Wissam is an apprentice in a local beauty salon and is building her cosmetology skills in makeup, hairstyling, and manicures. In order to help her cope during the Covid-19 lockdown, she is exercising at home. She dreams of opening her own salon one day, perhaps when she returns to Syria, and continuing to support her children with their education.

 

*Samer is a fictitious name used in order to maintain confidentiality.