x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mental health is a topic to talk about, not hide

Psychological problems ought to be treated the same as any other kind of illness, and talking about it should help remove the stigma and shame associated with it.

When a young Emirati woman called Hasna finally raised the courage to tell someone about her compulsive habit of pulling out her own hair, she was not just seeking help for herself but also breaking a powerful cultural taboo about mental health. But, as she described in The National yesterday, taking the decision to discuss it with her sister and then to consider getting professional help from a psychologist was the key to getting control of the puzzling disorder known as trichotillomania from which she had suffered for 12 years.

Hasna’s case neatly encapsulates the process many of those in this region – and, indeed, all around the world – undergo with regard to any mental health issue. This is both unnecessary and counterproductive. If one suffered a broken leg, for example, one wouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor. A constant refrain of those in the medical profession is that patients with progressive conditions often set too high a threshold of discomfort before seeking medical help, often turning something that could be treated successfully early into a more serious proposition.

The same principle applies equally to mental health. A small problem, addressed early, can often be contained. But that is not the way mental health is usually approached. As Hasna herself said, the expectation is that only those suffering from insanity went to see psychiatrists and that was often a last resort, for fear of the stigma and shame associated with having a mental disorder. Despite her courage in both raising the issue with her sister and then recounting it to The National, “Hasna” is a pseudonym she adopted to hide her identity.

Part of the reason for the distinction between perceptions of physical and mental health is that, unlike a broken leg, mental disorders tend to be more difficult to treat and there is a tendency by some in the medical fraternity to address the symptom through anti-anxiety medicines rather than address the root cause of the problem.

This issue affects many people all over the world, with those same hallmarks of fear and shame inhibiting people seeking help. One way to overcome this is to talk about it – as Hasna did. When she finally raised the courage to talk to her sister, she found love and support rather than shame and stigmatisation, and it led to her getting control of her disorder. That should be a model for everyone.