A Bahraini psychologist shared how the Beirut blast in 2020 led her to co-found a vital mental health support lifeline in Lebanon to provide help to those suffering from trauma, anxiety and depression.
Luma Bashmi was born in Bahrain but studied in the American University of Beirut before continuing her studies in London and the US and moving back to the Gulf to continue her work in psychology.
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Fast forward to August 4, 2020, Bashmi watched, along with the world, the blast that destroyed neighborhoods and devastated Lebanon; a country already witnessing major economic and social-political turmoil.
The blast killed more than 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed swathes of the Lebanese capital.
“The first thing I did was call one my friends in Lebanon and I asked her, ‘what can I do to help you?” Bashmi told Al Arabiya English. “She said, ‘You are in mental health so you know, better than me, what can you do?’… The first thing that I thought of was how I could give mental health psychosocial support.”
Bashmi turned to her network and connected with Dr. Summer Fakro, a clinical psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia, a clinic in Dubai.
Together, they discussed the loss and the complex trauma citizens across the Middle Eastern country would be feeling in the aftermath of the blast.
Together, they also connected with Lisa Luxx, a co-founder and director who has worked on the ground in Lebanon, distributing fund, medicine and urgent aid alongside NGOs.
The trio decided to join forces and co-found a coordinated mental health support to those in suffering in times of struggle and conflict in Lebanon.
Elaa Beirut was born.
Bashmi, Fakro and Luxx began spreading the word and began to accrue a network of mental health professionals – from Saudi Arabia, the UK, the US, Portugal among other nations – who offered their services for free.
“We’ve grown to be a great group,” she said. “I mean, we’ve become an international group of mental health professionals from all over the world.”
As Elaa Beirut grew in traction, the organization partnered with local NGOs in Lebanon and a health clinic in Beirut, and they began to deliver mental health services to those in crisis who had been stuck on waitlists waiting for mental health support.
Most clients were aged 18 to 50, many of them women, but psychologists with Ella Beirut also treated children, and migrants who could not afford to pay for mental health support.
Some of the referrals were those who continued to suffer with the aftermath of the Beirut blast. Others were feeling the financial strain following the economic crisis. Some were suffering with the burden of no longer being able to support loved ones.
Others had lost family members in the blast or had seen family members suffer due to not getting adequate treatment at the over-stretched hospitals or health clinics in the country.
The stresses and anxieties among residents in Lebanon, said Bashmi, were far-reaching.
Each patient referred to Elaa Beirut is screened to make sure they do not need urgent suicide prevention help before they embark on a personalized 8-12 session program online with their assigned psychologist.
All treatment referrals are done via encrypted websites and messaging services to ensure patient confidentiality.
As word-of-mouth grew in Lebanon, more and more people started seeking the help of Elaa Beirut, which hopes to ease the burden on already-strained health systems in the country, as well as provide vital mental health support those who do not have access.
Elaa Beirut has already been expanding itsservices; offering group mental health sessions with migrant workers and hosting virtual seminars on mental health wellbeing on their dedicated Instagram page. They have also been training local NGOs to recognize signs of stress, anxiety and trauma and equipping them with the tools to help others.
Bashmi, who is about to embark on a PhD at Cambridge University, said she has further hopes for the organization; including registering Elaa Beirut which would allow it to accept donations and expand the services offered.
One day, she would like to expand the service outside of Lebanon, with her top priority being Palestine.
For now, Bashmi and her co-founders simply hope to ease a bit of the burden for those in the country.
“I think our ultimate goal has always been to help those that are the most in need. When we speak to some of the clients, or we hear about feedback from therapists in our monthly supervisions with them is that a lot of the clients see psychosocial support as a luxury because their priority is to just bring food to the table and just support the family. But mental health is a necessity,” Bashmi told Al Arabiya English.
“We all know Lebanese people are resilient. But they can only take on so much.”