Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

Let's discuss mental health as openly as we now talk about breast cancer

Like cancer, depression is not easy to bring up in conversation but it's important that we reach out to those who need help

The Pink Caravan Ride, a UAE-based initiativeseeks to raise awareness of self-examination for breast cancer. AFP
The Pink Caravan Ride, a UAE-based initiativeseeks to raise awareness of self-examination for breast cancer. AFP

Over the weekend, strolling through one of Abu Dhabi’s malls, I was struck by a sight that a few years ago would have been almost unimaginable: an open booth promoting the need for checks for breast cancer. Staffed by one of the capital’s private hospitals, the booth was crowded with women seeking advice, information and non-invasive screening. Among them were both traditionally clad Emirati women and expatriates.

Not so long ago, the very mention of breast cancer or indeed any other type of cancer was rarely to be heard in public. Fans of the Harry Potter novels might well have described it as the Voldemort of ailments, the death-dealing killer whose name was never to be mentioned. Today, the situation is radically different. An event I attended at one of the capital’s secondary schools last Thursday was devoted in part to raising funds for breast cancer research, with both children and staff proudly wearing little pink ribbons.

Nearly 20 years ago, I got to know some members of an informal group of women, all of whom were diagnosed with breast cancer and who had come together partly in solidarity and reassurance and partly to breach the veil of silence around the disease. Their efforts and those of many others have made a significant contribution to awareness of the need for early screening and of the fact that if caught early, breast cancer can be treated successfully.

In that process of breaching the veil, it is right that I should pay tribute to one of the UAE’s outstanding women, our former Minister of State for Tolerance, Sheikha Lubna bint Khaled Al Qasimi, who was among the very first to speak out.

There is now a better understanding of the various forms of cancer, which is all to the good. That is in part due to those afflicted with it who have themselves chosen to talk. Most people have relatives or acquaintances who have died from cancer. Increased awareness of risk factors and of the need for early screening is beneficial to us all. So too is the recognition that while the prognosis for survival varies hugely for different types of cancer, it is not necessarily a death sentence. As scientific research continues, there may yet be cures found for some of the most intractable types.

I welcome this better understanding of cancer, coupled with a growing willingness to talk about it. So many have benefited and so many more will benefit in the future.

When medical knowledge had no reached the levels that it has today, any behaviour diverging from the norm was likely to be classified as symptomatic of mental illness. That is no longer the case

Perhaps we can now move forward to tackle another ailment which remains, for most people, a hugely difficult topic to discuss: mental health. That too is a Voldemort of illnesses.

In the not-so-distant past, any behaviour diverging from what was considered to be the norm was likely to be classified as symptomatic of mental illness. When medical knowledge had not reached the levels that it has today, people would simply be put in an institution, shut away from the rest of the world, devoid of the help that now would be available. There is no need for that today.

Most of us may from time to time suffer from stress. Both the causes and the symptoms vary widely. Some fortunate people manage to pass through it without assistance. Many though need help but are either unable to recognise this or feel unable to reach out to seek it. There is still regrettably a stigma attached to seeking help. That affects not just those struggling with the issue but those around them. Fellow employees may adopt a policy of overlooking behaviour when what is actually required is an offer of assistance. Family members might feel that the very act of acknowledging a mental health issue can adversely affect the reputation of the whole family, not just of the individual concerned.

As a school governor, I know that issues related to mental health are not defined by age. Teenagers as well as senior citizens may struggle with problems on their own when a bit of help might be invaluable. In Britain, it is estimated than one in four people suffer from mental health problems at some stage in their lives.

There are no easy answers and appropriate solutions vary from person to person. A first challenge though is to begin to make it easier for those with mental health issues to talk about them, to reach out and to realise that they are not alone.

A friend in Britain, who has had a long and impressive political career, revealed publicly a few years ago that he had suffered recurrent bouts of deep depression. Asked if the revelation might affect his career, he responded: "I actually don't care now because if it helps other people who have suffered from depression in the past – good." Despite unkind comments from a tiny minority, he continues productively in public life. I look forward to similar progress in the Emirates.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

Updated: November 4, 2019 06:59 PM

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