Proving an oasis of hope for many

Robert Rombouts // Special to Western News

In response to what he saw as a growing need, Neuroscience graduate student Mazen El-Baba started H.appi, a non-profit organization dedicated to de-stigmatizing addiction and mental-health issues in the Middle East and Africa.

Mazen El-Baba has married a personal passion for social justice with his studies in neuroscience to better his community.

Born in Lebanon, the Neuroscience masters student witnessed how addiction and mental-health issues were often addressed in the Middle East and Africa. “Society focuses more on the reputation of the family rather than the individual,” he said, stressing some people dealing with these issues often never receive support.

In the United Arab Emirates, only 38 per cent of those surveyed would seek psychiatric help if their children were presented with mental-health problems. In Egypt, 56.6 per cent would not accept a person suffering from psychosis as a family member and 85.5 per cent would not accept a person suffering from psychosis to be their school teacher.

Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Syria and Yemen have fewer than 0.5 psychiatrists per 100,000 people; while the number of psychiatric nurses per 100,000 people is 23 in Bahrain; 22.5 in the Emirates; .09 in Yemen; and .03 in Somalia.

In response, El-Baba started H.appi, a non-profit organization dedicated to de-stigmatizing addiction and mental-health issues in the region. Up and running since September 2015, the organization looks to educate and train medical staff, family members, patients and the general public on both subjects, as well as increase research development in the region.

Currently, research endeavors into addiction and mental health are close to non-existent in the Middle East and Africa when compared to the international community. The majority of the research that does exist dates back to the 1970s. Regional researchers describe the current funding status and research development as “a desert.”

H.appi provides grants to regional researchers studying the subjects.

“Right now, there is almost no research going on. Small grants will go a long way,” El-Baba said.

H.appi also supports on-the-ground resources, such as a summer camps and a mental-health hotline.

Through H.appi, El-Baba connected with many families of Syrian refugees as they came to Canada, and noticed behavioural problems in some of the children. He felt some form of intervention was needed. This summer, he organized a summer camp for some of these children, designed to provide opportunities to learn English, connect with local groups and have a traditional Canadian summer camp experience.

But El-Baba saw another unique opportunity. Working with Psychology professors Bruce Morton and Daniel Ansari, El-Baba collected baseline intellectual, behavioral and cognitive data from children in the camp.

Morton and El-Baba see the data acquisition as part of an ongoing relationship creating a longitudinal study to identify how trauma and adversity affect how children learn and develop cognitive reasoning.

“This data can be used by multiple stakeholders in the future,” Morton said. “Schools, health care, they can all use this data.”

The information can also be used to see what traits or characteristics may help identify factors that make children resilient and may lead to future success. This, in turn, can be used to help better prepare for refugee resettlement, Morton explained.

Even before his work with H.appi, El-Baba had been an active volunteer. While in high school, he started a chapter of Best Buddies, a non-profit dedicated to creating friendships between students with and without disabilities. He also volunteers with Ghana Medical Help, an organization committed to providing medical aid to hospitals in Ghana.

“I like to join causes I feel I can make a difference in, usually a cause where there’s a marginalized people and someone who needs an advocate. I want to give people a voice because they can contribute to the community immensely,” he said. “I do come from a country that experienced war and I was there once.”

“I believe community service has to be part of anyone’s work,” said El-Baba. “To feel I’m able to give back to the community is an investment in myself and the community at large.”