Mental health under occupation: Palestinian psychiatrist Dr. Samah Jabr speaks at UBC webinar

“When I cross from Jerusalem to Ramallah, only 30 kilometers apart, sometimes I spend two, three hours [at military checkpoints]. If people start showing any protest, honking their cars, making some noise, they can close the checkpoints. And we need to cross to our homes. We need to go.”

This is the daily experience of many Palestinians, including Dr. Samah Jabr, who described her commute from her home in Jerusalem to her job in Ramallah in a webinar on Palestinian mental health care on March 22. Jabr is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist and writer who featured in the documentary Behind the Frontlines. She is the Chair of the Mental Health Unit at the Palestinian Ministry of Health, and supervises mental health activities in the West Bank and Gaza.

The UBC Middle East Studies (MES) program invited Jabr to discuss the importance of integrating social justice and human rights approaches into mental health work, and how healthcare workers can do so. In attendance were 100+ students and staff from various faculties, as well as healthcare professionals from across the US, Canada and the UK, according to the event organizer, Dr. Pheroze Unwalla.

“I think it is vital to provide platforms for Palestinian scholars and communities to speak and be heard,” wrote Unwalla, who is also an associate professor of teaching in the department of history and chair of the MES program, in an email to The Ubyssey.

“To give them a chance to share with the world their knowledge and experiences with Israeli settler colonialism and genocide. And to shatter the silence and cultures of fear produced by Zionist lobby groups, university administrations, and governments," he wrote.

Jabr discussed her work in national policymaking for mental health in Palestine, including the 2023 Child and Adolescent Mental Health National Strategy.

“We try to create interventions that are suitable for the Palestinian culture and the Palestinian political context,” she said.

Mental health isn't just in the head — it's impacted by all of an individual’s surrounding circumstances, or as Jabr said, “within the context, not [only] between our ears.” In the field of psychology, this idea is encompassed by the biopsychosocial model of health, which suggests that a person’s health is impacted by both external and internal factors.

However, Jabr argued that Western psychology tends to reduce treatment to medication. This isn't effective for people who have been under a constant state of trauma and stress for generations.

"70 per cent of Gazans and 50 per cent of the West Bank are depressed," said Jabr. "This means that the majority of Palestinians need antidepressants, and antidepressants don’t solve the oppressive power structure.”

Jabr stressed that psychologists within academia hold responsibility to address political issues.

“We cannot measure trauma only through what happens to individuals, it's about the social fabric, how we view ourselves, how we view others ... Only acts of international solidarity, and justice and redress can contribute to this healing process.”

But Western scientific institutions traditionally emphasize political neutrality. According to Jabr, rather than reducing bias, this increases it. Enforcing false neutrality prevents psychologists from speaking honestly about the root causes of some mental health epidemics: political oppression and violence.

“If … we psychiatrists … are silenced by the over-emphasis on neutrality and impartiality and we can say nothing about the violation of human rights and the power dynamics that are crushing people, then what can we offer people?" she said. "Only pathologizing their experience.”

Jabr recalled her encounters with a patient separated from his family due to restrictions on movement, and another patient who was tortured during his detainment. Such experiences lead to learned helplessness: when an individual gives up on trying to change a situation after being in a prolonged state of stress and powerlessness.

To combat learned helplessness and promote agency, Jabr transcribes her patients’ experiences and psychological histories not only to devise treatment plans, but so they can “take it to the court and seek redress.”

Israel also dehumanizes Palestinians through denying them citizenship or a recognized nationality, which has consequences on their identity and sense of belonging.

“My identity papers refer to me as a temporary resident with an undefined nationality,” said Jabr.

Still, Palestinians have their own form of psychological power: sumud, which roughly translates to “steadfastness.” Sumud is grounded in faith and national pride, promoting resilience — which is in itself a form of action to challenge the status quo.

“[Sumud] can be understood at an individual level and at a collective level,” said Jabr, using the example of Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Al-Dahdouh who continued to work despite threats to his family. At a collective level, “we see the community of mentors, of health professionals… who continue to serve the people, in spite of all Israeli threats for them to leave the hospitals and leave patients behind."

“As a mental health professional, I think that what we have prepared as plans for emergency response, don't work in the situation of Gaza now. And we need to be humble, be patient, observe what people do to help themselves and learn from them,” said Jabr. Drawing on existing coping frameworks like sumud is part of it.

Jabr concluded with a call to action. “How can you act? … With learning more about Palestine comes a higher level of responsibility.”

“So speak out whenever and wherever you can,” wrote Unwalla. “Say Palestine. Call Israel's genocide a genocide. Amplify Palestinian voices and provide them platforms to speak. Hold events. Call out the authorities that enable this genocide. Educate yourself and others. Join communities working for peace and justice. Do what you can. But do it now.”