In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as in much of the world, people who inject drugs, sex workers, gay men and other men who have sex with men, and transgender people are more likely to face discrimination, experience violence and lack access to stigma-free and quality health care.
Since September 2021, FHI 360 and its partner, Pragma Corporation, have collaborated with 10 HIV service delivery organizations in the region to provide free, confidential, virtual mental health care through the MENA Moves project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The project created a website through which clients of and providers from the HIV service delivery organizations in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria can schedule appointments with trauma-informed, non-stigmatizing therapists. With the COVID-19 pandemic necessitating lockdowns and its ripple effects causing additional stress, the online format of the project garnered immediate interest.
“The pandemic has really accentuated the need for mental health support,” says Najib Dahbi, who works for OPALS (or the Pan-African Organization for the Fight against AIDS), one of the service delivery organizations in Morocco. “We regularly refer people to the website and help them book mental health care appointments,” says Dahbi. So far, nearly 3,000 sessions have been booked through the site.
The goal of this story was to use engaging storytelling to highlight the MENA Moves project so the work can continue — and more people living with HIV in the MENA region can receive the stigma-free mental health care they deserve.
We approached this story by interviewing the experts at FHI 360 who are managing the MENA Moves project, to better understand the work and the people who are affected by it. Our FHI 360 colleagues shared with us some of the challenges faced by people living with HIV and members of LGBTQIA+ communities in the MENA region: stigma, discrimination, marginalization and violence. In Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, homosexuality is illegal.
This social discrimination, coupled with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, has created an urgent need for stigma-free, respectful mental health care services for people affected by HIV. Realizing this need, our FHI 360 colleagues have been working with local nongovernmental organizations to provide trauma-informed, non-stigmatizing virtual mental health care to people affected by HIV in the MENA region. Virtual health care is beneficial because it allows people to receive care during pandemic-related restrictions and offers more privacy than in-person care.
We interviewed participating therapists in French, as well as people who have received care through the program. Many of their experiences are featured in the story. One therapist, Dounia Z., shared that the program is helping “guarantee these people the right to health — but also, for some people, the right to life. There are people who told me only recently, ‘Before [therapy], I was thinking of killing myself.’” The program is helping people turn their lives around by giving them the support they need.
To respect the privacy of the people in the story and the sensitivity of the issues they are experiencing, we did not include photos or videos. But we knew that visuals would help the story come alive, so we commissioned Elwa Design to create an illustration that shows how the MENA Moves program is changing lives. We love how the illustration evokes empathy in the reader — like the empathy that the therapists in the program have for their patients.
The goal of this story was to promote the MENA Moves program and encourage people to engage with the content of the story. We were successful: Since it was published one month ago, the article has been viewed by people in 36 countries, and the average time spent on the page has been four minutes, 43 seconds (three minutes more than the average time for other articles on our site at that time).