Omar Reda, MD

The 40-year-old Libyan-American Psychiatrist Omar Reda, MD is a man on a very difficult mission. He faces many hurdles before his dream of a psychologically and emotionally healthy and stable Libya becomes a reality.

Reda, who has dedicated almost all of his professional time to giving mental health support to the Libyans since the beginning of the February 2011 Revolution, is however surprisingly optimistic. Here, for Nahla Ink, he answered questions about his new book ‘Journey of Hope’, which he is currently promoting across five Libyan cities and towns.

Nahla: In the book, you speak of the wounded healer. Has writing the book given you catharsis and closure?

Reda: Catharsis yes. I used writing as my way of coping by way of academic detachment. Closure no, because the country will never be the same especially for the families and loved ones of the deceased. It seems like the Gaddafi mentality and old rules still dictate the country.

Nahla: You mention the need for remembrance and rituals. What would you propose the Libyans do to remember the sacrifices of the Revolution?

Reda: I met with hundreds of families of the martyrs and talked to friends who fought with them in the front lines. Everyone has the same answer, that the best thing to remember the sacrifices of our heroes is to accomplish the mission they started, to build Libya and start with building the human being and raising moral standards.

Nahla: What do you think are the psychological consequences of Gaddafi’s rule?

Reda: Moral corruption, depression and despair, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addiction, anger, grief, blood and revenge lust. Libyan society remains severely divided. The only way to bridge those differences is through community programs that succeeded in other countries like Bosnia, Rwanda and South Africa for example.

Nahla: Are you collaborating at all with the Libyan Ministry of Health? What is the current position of the Libyan government in relation to Libya’s mental health?

Reda: I tried to collaborate with every Ministry of Health since the Revolution, that is three in total. Unfortunately, projects and initiatives submitted by Libyans seem to end up in the trash.

Nahla: How far have the efforts to provide psychological support come to in Libya today? Are there any current programmes you know about and that you are personally involved with?

Reda: It is a struggle. The most impactful project happening as we speak is the World Health Organisation (WHO) Diplomas. One is for the non-psychiatric MDs to recognize and treat common psychiatric problems in order to fill the gaps and staff shortages, one is for the psychologists, one for nurses and one for social workers. I believe one will start soon also for recreational and vocational specialists. I am the head supervising MD on one of the WHO Diplomas and a Supervision Facilitator on another.

Nahla: You write quite extensively about the children and the need to help them to heal. Who is now looking after the orphans of the revolution?

Reda: The ministry for martyrs and the missing is responsible, but many local NGOs are doing wonderful work with them as well. It seems in Libya that non-official projects have more impact and better received. Maybe they are more sincere and less agenda-oriented than the government’s different parties.

Nahla: You also refer to drugs and addiction. How prevalent is this problem for the youth of Libya? What is the solution?

Reda: Four monsters are haunting Libya right now: moral crisis, the weapons and security issue, traffic and speed accidents and drug addiction. The problem is extremely prevalent and urgently needs to be addressed. Whilst there are many good projects on paper, they are faced with the same obstacles, mainly lack of support. For the youth, we need to keep them busy and support psychosocial, vocational and leisure projects.

Nahla: Can you tell me more about the Libya Al-Shefa Healing Project you mention in the book and how people can get involved?

Reda: Libya Al-Shefa is an initiative that started in June 2011 with the support of local NGOs to address seven projects under one name. These are psycho-education, raising standards of local professionals, support circles for fighters, support circles for families of fighters and the missing, a hotline, an art and play therapy for children, and a reconciliation project.

It has reached some of its goals but it needs the government’s moral and financial support to succeed. People can join Al-Shefa through Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/323504854337123/

Nahla: You say you would like to write a book about every Libyan martyr. Have you started to do this?

Reda: I am working on it and it will be a huge task because we still do not know the exact figures. The deceased on both sides of the conflict are anywhere from 5,500 (the government’s official figure) and 30,000 (the likely number per those in the frontlines).

Nahla: Lastly, what are your hopes for the future of Libya?

Reda: If the government does not take the current major problems we are facing seriously and especially of weapons, drugs and violence, then the situation will only get worse. But if the government changes its attitude and provides support to its citizen and professionals, things will go in the right direction and Libya may even become a role-model in every standard including mental health care.

Note: This article was first published circa October 2013

Journey of Hope, Omar Reda MD

Searching for Hope in the Middle of a War Zone

Journey of Hope is the 40-year-old Libyan American psychiatrist Omar Reda’s bold and courageous pledge to firstly dedicate himself as a mental health doctor to the cause of post-Revolution Libya.

He wants to contribute towards a country that can be at peace and harmony with itself; and for him to be able to take a leading role in healing his country from not just the outside but the inside injuries it has suffered for over the last four decades.

The book is a brief but extraordinary account of his life that shows it is possible to gain a closure of one’s difficult personal experiences, even when one is led by forces bigger than oneself. Indeed, coincidences do not exist according to the legendary psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung and synchronicity occurs in all of our lives, if only we open our eyes to its guidance and lessons therein.

Omar Reda had to flee Libya at the age of 26 for fear of his life, as Gaddafi blacklisted him in 1999 for the humanitarian medical work he was doing as a physician with some of the families of those who were imprisoned or executed by the former regime. It was his father who saved his life by warning him of the danger that he must immediately leave with no time for proper goodbyes.

Forced to escape, he sought asylum abroad in the United Kingdom and after the United States; where he was drawn to the field of psychiatry and global mental health, graduating from Harvard with a Masters in the field in 2007. Little could he then foresee February 2011 when he would not just be able to return home, but that his medical specialty would be of the utmost significance and be put to great use.

Journey of Hope is also very much a book about the Revolution and all the individual and collective sacrifices made by the Libyan people in their struggle to topple a cruel dictator who abused them for decades. It is about the sung and unsung heroes who risked or sacrificed their lives for freedom and liberty.

Above all, however, it is the writer’s unique mission to return to Libya to help, guide and support his fellow countrymen and women as a psychiatrist and to tend to the invisible psychological wounds suffered as a result of so much fighting, pain, hurt, trauma, oppression, rape, imprisonment and so much more.

To quote Omar Reda: “[In Libya], we can no longer hide our head in the sand, stuff our skeletons in the closet or swipe our dirt under the rug, our closets are full they are about to explode, our laundry is dirty but we cannot clean it unless we admit that it is dirty, there is nothing wrong about exposing what happened, the first step towards recovery is to admit that you have a problem, lack of insight is a poor prognostic indicator in psychiatry, lack of motivation is yet another one.” (page 87).

Omar Reda is concerned that this psychological terrain has been neglected and is still not being widely addressed by the government nor the people, however it is most urgent and necessary. The focus must be on the mental, emotional and feeling-wellbeing of the Libyans if there is to be any hope of lasting peace.

He also strongly believes that this mammoth task could and should be achieved by the Libyans themselves in the long run, with only the initial help and support from the relevant foreign aide professionals, NGO’s and charities already on the ground. He is also seeking the backing of the Ministry of Health that has unfortunately not been so forthcoming.

He makes a number of proposals as best strategy to make this challenge a reality and taking into account these facts: that in Libya today, there is only one psychiatrist per 200,000 Libyans, that pre-Revolution, there were only two very poorly equipped mental hospitals, that the role of mental health professionals was misunderstood and stigma attached to psychiatric symptoms.

And more facts. It is estimated that there are more than 25,000 cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), ranging from children to adults, military personnel as well as physicians who had to tend to the wounded. Plus, one cannot forget the consequences of Gaddafi’s rule that has caused, according to Reda: “moral corruption, depression, despair, PTSD, addiction to drugs, anger, grief, blood and revenge lust.”

One of the main proposals is to train the Libyans who are already working in the field of psychology and medicine or give support to those who have already built specific charities for men, women and children. Efforts must be unified and consolidated to build the much-needed mental health care infrastructure and therapeutic possibilities.

Already, Reda has immersed himself in this quest and contributed to the works of NGO’s and medical charities on the ground; beginning with his first visit to the country during the Revolution and his ongoing returns to oversee a number of initiatives focused in this area.

In particular, he is also fond of his work with children – whom he believes are the most vulnerable – by having offered some of them a safe space to freely express their fears and find ways to comprehend what has happened and give them hope for a brighter future. He is also concerned with developing support groups for the mental health professionals themselves to prevent them from compassion fatigue.

One current initiative that Reda started in June 2011 with the support of local NGOs is the Libya Al-Shefa Healing Project. This, he says, contains seven different goals but needs the government’s moral and financial backing to succeed. The seven goals are: psycho-education, raising standards of local professionals, support circles for fighters, support circles for families of fighters and the missing or deceased, a hotline, art and play therapy for children, and reconciliation efforts.

One can only wish him the very best of luck in this mission.

Note: This article was first published circa October 2013

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