Speaking up

Mentally ill children in Kuwait are often isolated from the outside world, according to Northeastern University psychology students Alaa and Dalal Alhomaizi, twin sisters who grew up in the Arab state.

“It’s like they don’t exist,” Alaa said.

As Dalal put it, “A family’s identity can be tarnished if the community finds out about a mentally ill relative. People would say, ‘This is the family with the crazy girl.’ ”

Last semester, the Alhomaizi sisters created a culturally compatible evidence-based campaign whose mission is to overcome the stigma attached to mental illness in the Middle East and shed light on the value of psychology as a scientific discipline.

The campaign, called SPEAK (Standing for Psychological Education and Awareness in Kuwait), includes print and television advertisements, social media outreach and a website with a discussion forum.

The effort has garnered significant attention from members of Parliament in Kuwait, who have praised the twins for re-educating Kuwaiti citizens about mental illness.

“It’s time for a campaign like ours,” Alaa explained. “People are becoming tired of the same old way.”

The project arose from a class Alaa took called deviant behavior and social control and took shape in a directed study led by Alisa Lincoln, an associate professor of health sciences with joint appointments in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

But there are still a number of hurdles to climb: The field of psychology in Kuwait, for example, lacks a formal guild to ensure the accuracy of credentials and licensing. The country is home to only a few practicing psychologists with PhDs.

“We were told that psychology was not a real field and that we would turn crazy like our clients if we studied it,” Dalal said.

The twins routinely update their Twitter account with facts and statistics about mental illness, which afflicts some 450 million people throughout the world. One tweet quoted former President Bill Clinton, who once said, “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”

SPEAK recently caught the attention of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, which offered the juniors co-op positions tailored to suit their expertise.

This spring, Alaa and Dalal will begin co-ops as research assistants for the hospital’s Chester M. Pierce, MD Division of Global Psychiatry, where they’ll assist with scientific studies whose results will form the foundation for mental health policy and practice in low- and middle-income countries.

The sisters hope to expand the program into Kuwait. “We want to change mental health policies,” Alaa said.