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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

The UAE has made great strides in addressing mental health problems

The government alone cannot be responsible - private companies must play their part

Sad businessman sitting head in hands thinking about destitution and difficulty on the bed in the dark bedroom with low light environment, dramatic concept. Getty Images
Sad businessman sitting head in hands thinking about destitution and difficulty on the bed in the dark bedroom with low light environment, dramatic concept. Getty Images

Winston Churchill called it “the black dog”. To Sylvia Plath, it was “this dark thing that sleeps in me”. Manic depression is only one of the plethora of mental illnesses that can debilitate any of us at almost any stage in our lives. Our technological progress over the last few decades can blind us to the fact that our understanding of the human mind is still at a rudimentary stage. So, alas, is the empathy accorded to the millions of men and women across the world who succumb to mental illness. All the talk about the urgent need for tolerance and understanding has not stripped away the stigma that still shrouds mental illness.

In such circumstances, is it any wonder that sufferers are reluctant, even afraid sometimes, to come forward and seek help? The UAE has made laudable strides in expanding the provision of services. Yet detailed statistics are difficult to come by because people are unwilling to open up. As The National reported on Tuesday, the World Mental Health Day, psychiatrists and psychologists believe the services currently on offer are “suboptimal”.

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In addition to the absence of reliable data, mental health care in this country is also compromised by the lack of comprehensive insurance coverage and gaps in social services and inpatient facilities. Expatriates living on their own are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, but mental illness targets people of all nationalities. Sixty-five per cent of the outpatients who receive treatment at Al Ain Hospital’s psychiatric department are Emiratis. And according to a survey by the World Health Organisation, 13 per cent of UAE school students aged between 13 and 15 have seriously considered attempting suicide.

The existing legal framework needs adjusting to the scale of the challenge before it. A new Mental Health Act, which has been in gestation for three years and is expected to come into effect in early 2018, will fill some of the loopholes. It will, among other things, increase awareness of mental illness while integrating the provision of care across private- and public-sector hospitals. Medical teams will also be able to deal directly with patients who have attempted suicide. Police will continue to be able to intervene to deter people from taking their own lives, but persons who suffer from mental illness will no longer face imprisonment and/or fines for attempting suicide.

There is a crisis in global mental health care. The UAE, which was one of the first countries in the region to recognise mental illness, is now intensifying its efforts to deal with it. But the responsibility should not have to be the Government’s alone. Private companies must put in place measures that encourage employees to come forward without fear. The LightHouse Arabia Centre in Dubai is pioneering new methods, such as Mental Health First Aid, to help the private sector reach out to and aid employees. Attitudes are changing. But more can, and must, be done.

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