People with psychosocial disabilities frequently face stigma, discrimination and violations of their rights, including within and from the medical community, which reflects broader societal stigma. A doctor shares his personal experience here and how he uses it today to fight stigma.
When Dr Ahmed Hankir first experienced extreme psychological distress while a medical student in the UK in 2006, he was slow to seek help due to the shame and stigma of being left behind. have a mental health problem.
Compounding his distress was the added stigma of being a man of color and a Muslim, which, along with his state of mental health, constituted what he calls a “triple whammy” of stigma he “internalizes”. This led him to feel “dehumanized”.
The stress and strain of low-paying jobs to support himself as a student, and the outbreak of war in Lebanon, the country of his roots and where his parents lived, made matters worse. During this time he was living in a dilapidated house in one of Manchester’s most dangerous areas.
The intersectionality of these stressors — which added “layer after layer” — is often overlooked at the level of the individual, he said. Racism could be ignored. “There might be gaslighting…so, you know, you’re not being racialized.”
Hankir, who was born in Belfast when his parents fled the 1982 war in Lebanon but later returned to Lebanon as a teenager, also said he had an identity crisis. “We want to be accepted, but I wasn’t treated like a Brit in the UK and I wasn’t treated like a Lebanese in Lebanon.”
The “creeping” stigma in the medical profession
Yet it was in his own profession that he felt the stigma of mental health most deeply, which delayed his search for help. He was “ridiculed” by his fellow medical students and ostracized by his closest companions. When he asked for help from the person in charge of student support, a person who had the power to have him removed from his course, he was “psychologically tortured”. He was forced to temporarily interrupt his studies.
“Stigma is endemic in the medical profession. If we don’t deal with it, it will continue to destroy and devastate the lives of many people. We’re only scratching the surface now – I don’t know an expert on stigma. There is a lot of ignorance about how to deal with mental health,” he said.
Not only is there ignorance, but there is also arrogance on the part of healthcare providers, some of whom look down on people with mental disorders and psychosocial disabilities, he said.
“It takes strength to accept that you might be a source of stigma. What we need is humility. But I have met inspiring and humble doctors who have contributed to my recovery and continue to contribute to my resilience.
“My lived experience is my superpower”
Today, Hankir is a psychiatrist and he draws on his past: “My experience is my superpower. It’s a strength, not a weakness. It makes me more insightful, empathetic and motivated.
“When I work in frontline psychiatry and provide care to someone in a mental health crisis at 2 a.m., I often draw on my personal expertise more than my professional expertise, especially when trying to develop a relationship and a “therapeutic alliance” with the person receiving care from me.
He thinks many of his peers have also experienced psychological distress, but have chosen to remain silent about it. “I am honest and open about my experience living with a mental health issue. More people are talking about it. We normalize life with mental health issues.
Introducing “Wounded Healer” Presentation Worldwide
Hankir is now renowned for his presentation “Wounded Healer,” which aims to debunk myths and humanize people living with mental health issues by blending performing arts and storytelling with psychiatry.
The Wounded Healer also charts Hankir’s recovery journey. “Speaking out about stigma helps reduce it,” he explained. More than 100,000 people in 20 countries have heard him speak. In recognition of his work, Hankir received the 2022 World Health Organization Director General’s Award for Global Health, among other awards.
He welcomes WHO’s Quality Rights Initiative, which takes an approach to mental health based on a human rights framework that empowers, dignifies and humanizes people with mental disorders.
“Our human rights are violated whenever and wherever – high income countries, low income countries. Too many people feel like they’ve been bullied,” he said. “Where care is available, there are also concerns about the quality of care.”
He continues to face negativity from some psychiatrists, some of whom are “suspicious” of his success. “They accuse me of fabricating a serious mental health problem. It’s as if people living with serious mental health issues can’t recover or excel, and can only think about survival. I was unhappy for many years. But now I’m not just surviving, I’m thriving,” he laughed.
A version of this story first appeared in the WHO’s World Report on Health Equity for People with Disabilities.