What Mental Health in Palestine Has Taught Me About Charity


Trustee of JustAct Middle East, Jake Lloyd, draws on the themes of Justice, Mercy and Humility to discuss what the charity sector might learn from Palestine’s mental health workers.

The more I read about charity, the more it seems like a bit of a dirty word: tabloids say that it funds space exploration; academics argue that it keeps poor countries poor; and aid workers expose its inefficiency.

Christian charity seems to be tarnished further still, with a recent study exploring a perception that some Christian charities exist – at least in part – to identify vulnerable people, and to coerce them into faith.

I help run a small charity, and we are Christians, and yet I must admit to having some sympathy with all of these criticisms.

At JustAct Middle East we fund locally-run organisations in the Middle East that address issues of social exclusion. Like most Christian charities, for us the Bible is both a resource that gives expression to what we do, and a tool for discerning how we do it.

But the Bible doesn’t exist in a vacuum – our Middle Eastern partners are pivotal in how we apply it to our work.

One of these partners is The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. They’re a team of around seventy mental health professionals who strive to improve the wellbeing of people affected by the ongoing blockade and military violence in the densely-populated Palestinian enclave.

In many ways, their work – and that of their colleagues – embodies the words of Micah 6: 8, which says, ‘And what does God require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’.

But as well as articulating the work of one charity, I can’t help but wonder if this verse might be relevant to the charity sector more broadly. At the very least, I’m convinced it offers a robust safeguard against acts of coercion or space exploration.

In support of this argument, here are three short illustrations of the importance of justice, mercy and humility in the work of mental health professionals in Palestine.

Justice

During the Gaza War of 2014, a psychologist from the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme told the New York Times that his role felt like that of a prison doctor who treats a torture victim, only to make the victim healthy enough to be interrogated and tortured again. He was making the point that it is recurrent military violence, and Gaza’s continued isolation, that make their work necessary, and this is why the organisation must seek political change through advocacy, as much as individual change through therapy.

Here he outlines a charitable imperative not just to treat symptoms, but to tackle causes. In other words, to pursue justice. And in this case, it is not simply an optional component of their work. Rather, it is absolutely crucial: not to pursue justice is to enable suffering to continue.

Mercy

In a talk delivered to a London audience in 2014, the Palestinian Psychologist Samah Jabr gave an overview of mental health in Palestine. One of her observations was that international solidarity can be as important as humanitarian aid for Palestinians. She said that it gives a psychological boost to people who feel oppressed.

While charity ordinarily involves giving our time and resources to a cause, Jabr shows that we can give something else. ‘Mercy’ perhaps encapsulates this way of thinking, as mercy is often the basis for giving our time and resources, but it is also closely-linked to ‘compassion’, which at its root means ‘to suffer with’. Jabr’s observation reinforces the idea that to share in the suffering of others, is a means to lessen that suffering.

Humility

A recent UK conference explored mental health in conflict zones, and featured speakers from around the world, including Gaza. A recurrent theme was the inadequacy of ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ as a means to explain how conflict impacts the mental health of civilians. This is because ‘post’ implies that the conflict has finished, and ‘disorder’ suggests that the problem originates in a person’s mind, not their environment. While these terms might apply to western combatants returned home from war, neither apply to Gazan civilians, who were more likely to use vocabulary that acknowledges the external causes of their mental state, like ‘broken’ or ‘destroyed’. To ignore these voices risks placing undue emphasis on funding therapy, rather than promoting peace.

In effect, the speakers at this conference were advocating humility as a means to inoculate against making such mistakes. Indeed, humility should cause charities to listen to those they serve, rather than impose what they have learned elsewhere. This in turn equips them to work with their beneficiaries, and so to identify and implement solutions that properly address their needs.

That the justice, mercy and humility that God asks of his followers in Micah, might also be asked of a charity, perhaps shouldn’t comes as a surprise. In fact, the word ‘charity’ originates from the Latin word ‘caritas’, meaning ‘Christian love’. And if that’s what charity ought to be – a demonstration of God’s love – then I would suggest that Palestine’s mental health workers have plenty to teach the charitable sector about what this love should look like.


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