PFor William Noun the 4th of August will always be difficult. He survived the Beirut port explosion in 2020, but it is also the day his brother Joe, a firefighter, died trying to put out the flames after the explosion, considered the largest non-atomic explosion in universal history.
“The same feelings of hate, fear and anger are still there”, tells Lusa William on the eve of the anniversary of the accident. “But the difference now, three years later, is that the brain is slowly starting to accept what happened,” he says.
William sought psychological support after the explosion. In addition to therapy, he took medication for six months and continues to this day to see a doctor every month.
The explosion three years ago left the Lebanese capital in a post-apocalyptic scenario that injured more than 6,000 people and left psychological sequelae in many more.
There are no official data on the total number of people affected. However, the non-governmental organization dedicated to mental health, Embrace, conducted a survey shortly after the incident which revealed that 83% of respondents felt sadness on a daily basis and 73% were highly anxious. A month after the explosion, those numbers had dropped to 55% and 46%, respectively.
Today, less than 10% of Embrace patients show signs of post-traumatic stress, but even the other patients “mention the 4th of August as a ‘trigger’ of their symptoms”, tells Lusa Myriam Zarzour, psychiatrist and co-director by Embrace.
Zarzour explains that the lack of answers regarding what happened is one of the factors that impede the healing process.
“There is no recovery until you really know what happened or find out who was responsible and justice is done because it’s a constant reminder that until there’s justice, this could happen at any time.”explains the psychiatrist.
The organization manages the only suicide prevention hotline in Lebanon. In the first nine months of 2021, shortly after the explosion, Embrace received 6,000 calls, triple the number recorded in previous years. Despite the lack of official data, it is estimated that the number of suicides has also been increasing.
But Myriam Zarour explains that the explosion was just one more factor that accelerated what was already the decline in the mental health of many Lebanese.
Faced with one of the worst economic crises of modern times, which began in 2019 with the total collapse of financial institutions, the lives of the Lebanese changed almost overnight. The exponential inflation of the currency has left more than 80% of the population living below the poverty line, unemployment is widespread, as is the struggle for regular access to basic needs such as electricity, water, fuel or medicine.
As the crisis progresses, many thousands of Lebanese have already left the country in search of opportunities. Among them, 40% of doctors and a third of nurses, since 2019, according to the World Health Organization. Access to therapy is increasingly expensive and the necessary drugs are often unavailable.
“We see not only that risk factors for mental health are increasing – such as poverty, unemployment, instability, uncertainty about the future – but also that protective factors are decreasing… on top of the obstacles that already existed such as taboo and stigma. So it’s only natural that we are seeing an increase in mental health problems”diz Zarzour.
For many Lebanese, the explosion at the port of Beirut was the last drop in an already overflowing cup.
Racelle Hamad emigrated to Turkey in August 2021. A year earlier, on the day of the explosion, she was in a cafe with colleagues a few hundred meters from the epicenter. Like many other Lebanese, she thought the city was being bombed. On the phone with her mother, she suffered a panic attack that recurred for several months whenever she heard an airplane or the sound of a door slamming.
“I left Lebanon mainly because of the financial crisis. When the explosion happened I was already emotionally ready to leave. I needed to escape”, Racelle told Lusa.
The 31-year-old architect thought she would never return to Lebanon. But Racelle has just moved back to Beirut, because of a job opportunity. Racelle confesses that she didn’t feel ready to go back, but that she didn’t have the energy to build a future abroad.
“I feel that being Lebanese is my destiny to be here, it’s not a choice,” she says. “I know I’d rather be here than anyone else because this is my comfort zone, but at the same time I know this isn’t the best place for me.”
It’s a sentiment echoed through generations who have been accumulating layers upon layers of collective trauma. For many, the 2020 explosion has revived memories of the 2006 Israeli bombings, or the bloody 1975-1990 civil war.
“It is the constant continuation of the trauma that affects everyone’s hope and belief in a better future”, explains psychologist Diala Itani to Lusa. “People don’t want to go through that again.”
Itani specializes in supporting teenagers, on whom the blast had a particularly strong impact.
“Adolescents have dreams and this has been shaken. They want to leave the country because they feel that they won’t be able to do anything here and then they develop anger and some even ponder the usefulness of continuing to study” he says.
Awareness campaigns and efforts such as Embrace’s to raise awareness of mental health issues have had an effect, particularly among younger people.
“There is still hope and willpower to find justice, especially among teenagers”, William Noun tells Lusa.
Noun is part of a collective of victims’ relatives who are dedicated to demanding a transparent and expeditious investigation into the incident, and who have also participated in group therapy. The young man gained new strength when he met Maria Farias, who also lost a brother in the explosion.
The two fell in love in a story that captivated the country and have a wedding scheduled for September 2023.
“Me and Maria have two sides: a sad one and a sweet one. We are helping each other: I understand what she feels”, says William.
“This is life in Lebanon, it’s a duality between happiness and sadness, all mixed up”, he says.
Read also: Port of Beirut was “lucky” to escape other explosions
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