- Dr Marwa Nofal is a psychiatrist at a public mental health hospital in Egypt.
- In 2020, she launched a non-profit organization that brings together mental health professionals to facilitate more mental health research in Egypt and the Middle East and the North African region.
- Dr Marwa turned to the UNITAR Entrepreneurship for Public Health and COVID-19 Recovery in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon programme to learn about leadership strategies, entrepreneurship and teamwork.
- Marwa's advice for fellow entrepreneurs is to take action, no matter how small.
15 May 2023, Hiroshima, Japan – Since she was a high schooler, Dr Marwa Nofal was interested in the interactions between people. Wanting to learn more about human behaviour, she pursued medicine and psychiatry in her undergraduate and graduate studies. Marwa is now a psychiatrist at a public mental health hospital in Egypt, where she provides therapy to clients and conducts research. Straddling the roles of therapist and researcher, however, made clear to Marwa the gap between clinical application and research, between practice and theory.
Psychiatrists follow guidelines for their everyday practice to ensure that patients receive the best possible care. But this is where the gap between clinical application and research becomes apparent: if researchers are making important discoveries about mental illness but that new knowledge is not being reflected in clear guidelines, it will not transfer to clinical practice.
What’s more, most internationally established procedures are based on research from Western countries. There is little data on mental health practices in Egypt and the Middle East and North African (MENA) region that reflect the region’s unique culture and societal contexts.
The lack of information on psychiatry in Egypt and the MENA region inspired Marwa to start the Mental Health Research Network of Egypt with two co-founders. The Network is a non-profit body that aims to gather mental health professionals for collaborations on mental health research and contribute to a better understanding of mental health in Egypt and MENA. It seeks to develop guidelines and policies that are grounded in the latest scientific evidence and tailored to meet the needs of patients in the region.
Sparked by a social media post
The birth of the Network was sparked by a small act in 2020. As Marwa’s urge to do something grew, she asked on Facebook if anyone would be interested in joining a local network connecting mental health professionals. To her surprise, her page was flooded with hundreds of comments from mental health professionals excited about the idea.
The Network serves mental health professionals – psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers as well as anyone working in mental health who is interested in research. It has two main arms. The first focuses on facilitating research through securing funding, building members’ research skills, encouraging collaboration and providing technical support.
The second arm focuses on raising awareness about mental health research. The Network organizes online talks and workshops, which are then shared through the Network’s YouTube channel.
Growing pains and the UNITAR programme
Once launched, the Network received 2,000 applications from mental health professionals in Egypt and the MENA region. The Network’s rapid growth imposed huge managerial responsibilities on Marwa. Her team also had to register the body as a non-profit organization – a heavily bureaucratic process – and consider options such as external funding and membership fees to make the Network financially stable.
Amidst all the work, Marwa noticed when a Network member shared a link announcing a UNITAR training programme on Entrepreneurship for Public Health and COVID-19 Recovery in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon. The programme caught Marwa’s attention, especially as the Network was running projects to better understand mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic in the region.
She applied, hoping to learn more about leadership strategies, entrepreneurship and teamwork. To her excitement, she was accepted for the first two online phases of the programme. At the end of the two phases, Marwa submitted a video pitch and an operational plan for her project.
Based on the strength of her submissions, Marwa was invited to the third phase of the programme: an in-person training in Japan for outstanding participants. She had thought “Even if I am not successful; I already learned a lot” – and was thrilled to find out she was accepted.
The in-person training was memorable for Marwa. Apart from visiting Japan for the first time and experiencing its culture, she befriended colleagues from other countries and learned much that will help her expand the Network. She has now a better understanding of herself and her team and a clear path for expanding the Network.
Knowing about each other brings us closer and allows future collaboration.
To fellow entrepreneurs
Marwa’s advice for fellow entrepreneurs is to take action, no matter how small it may be. She started the Mental Health Network with a post on Facebook. Simple actions can trigger great things.
The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) is a dedicated training arm of the United Nations. In 2021, UNITAR trained 370,139 learners around the world to support their actions for a better future. In addition to our headquarters in Geneva, we have offices in Hiroshima, New York, Bonn and various networks around the world.
One of the eight divisions of UNITAR, the Division for Prosperity, based in the Hiroshima Office and Geneva Headquarters, seeks to shape an inclusive, sustainable and prosperous world. World-class learning and knowledge-sharing services on entrepreneurship, leadership, finance and trade, digital technologies, and nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are offered. We empower individuals from developing countries – especially women and young people – to address inequalities. Our alumni are making a difference in least-developed countries, countries emerging from conflict, and small-island developing states.
United Nations Online Volunteer Maha Moddather contributed to this article.