Ismail Serageldin


A Speech on Mental Health in a Changing World

17/10/2015 | Cairo


Invited to be a  distinguished guest speaker at the 20th World Congress of the World Federation for Mental Health held  in Cairo on 16-19 October,2015, Serageldin addressed an international audience of professionals, representatives from universities, public and private hospitals, NGOs, public institutions, state mental health agencies,  with a keynote speech entitled “Seeking Balance: Mental Health in a Changing World”. The theme of the conference was “Mental Health in times of crisis”.


Serageldin took the audience on a journey tracing  the beginnings of medicine from Imhotep in Ancient Egypt  through to Ancient Greece,  to Hellenistic Alexandria and the Library of Alexandria, to Baghdad’s House of Wisdom where “after the destruction of the ancient Library of Alexandria … much of the knowledge of the ancient world was re-collected and translated into Arabic”, to the golden ages of the Medieval Islamic World where medicine flourished and the first psychiatric treatment hospital in the world was built , to  the passing of the torch to Europe in the years of the European Renaissance, to the 19th century, when “both our prevailing ideas and the way we think about issues were challenged by a number of Giants including: Marx, … Darwin, …  Freud, … Pasteur, … Koch”,  leading to the transformation of medicine and mental health in the 20th century.


Highlighting the evolution of the standards of acceptable social behaviour, Serageldin said:

“In the final analysis the judgment that someone is suffering from a mental disorder is largely due to their inability to control their behavior to keep within certain boundaries of what are acceptable social norms.   But social norms and what is acceptable behavior change over time….

Thus much of what we do in the domain of mental health is promotion of a high level of satisfaction or at least compatibility between individuals and the prevalent norms of the societies they live in, and in treating those suffering from mental disorders, we try to help them remain within the acceptable boundaries close to the mean of expected  behavior.”


In reference to  “the social pathologies that societies like our own are being subjected to”, Serageldin urges: “Here in Egypt as in other parts of the Muslim and Arab Worlds, we the intellectuals who produce art and science must hold up mirrors to ourselves and to our societies and ask why is it that our societies have become such fertile ground for extremism and violence?  We must overcome fear and open windows onto the rest of the world and seek out different and more open relations with the “other”.  We must promote pluralism, dialogue and understanding, and cherish diversity and the enrichment it brings.  We must help move the values of our societies to embrace not only the new technologies but also that vision of a more desirable future.”



The congress discussed a number of contemporary, controversial, and challenging mental health issues, including the mental health of refugees  while presenting over 200 new research papers from 40 countries. Founded in 1948, the World Federation for Mental Health comprises members from all over the globe to promote mental health, prevent mental disorders, and improve the care, treatment and recovery of people with mental disorders.

Click here to read Serageldin's speech 

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