Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

We are facing a global health crisis that is largely unseen

Mental health illnesses should be treated with the same severity as more visible conditions

We must break the stigma surrounding mental health. Getty
We must break the stigma surrounding mental health. Getty

The world is facing a huge health crisis that is largely invisible, despite affecting more than one billion people. Mental health issues touch the lives of an estimated one in seven people, according to the World Health Organisation, yet for too long they have been neglected or shrugged off as insignificant or not as detrimental to health as more visible illnesses. Tomorrow, as we mark World Mental Health Day, we must reinforce our efforts to debunk the misconceptions that have forced far too many people to suffer in silence.

Anyone with a medically recognised condition should be able to access the appropriate treatment. However, a combination of stigma, shame and the cost of care prevents many from benefiting from the help they desperately need. This inconsistency is equally prevalent in the Arab world. In addition, in a region where several nations have been riven with conflict, political instability and the aftermath of war, the traumas and mental scars can last a long time, with those suffering unable to get help. As our columnist Kareem Shaheen recounts in his moving piece today, anxiety can even haunt those affected indirectly, as he was during his time as a reporter covering wars in Lebanon and Syria, not to mention the guilt associated with seeking help. Providing adequate mental health care is vital to restoring a sense of normality in post-conflict zones because it can help people begin to heal and rebuild their lives.

But even in relatively stable Arab nations, mental health does not get the attention it deserves. According to this year’s Arab Youth Survey, one-third of 18 to 24-year-olds reported knowing someone who suffers from mental health problems, yet more than half said access to medical care was problematic. In the UAE, the high cost of treatment can act as a deterrent to those seeking help. Mental health treatment is rarely covered in standard health insurance plans. This gives patients little alternative but to dip into their savings, if they have them available in the first place – but the cruel reality of mental health conditions is that they are often debilitating or can prevent people from being able to work or function. Not getting the right treatment can have further detrimental, long-term effects on people’s lives and even increase the risk of potentially fatal conditions like heart disease.

What is needed is a seismic change at grassroots level that invite those suffering to express their feelings and seek help

Authorities in the UAE have launched an ambitious initiative to improve the quality of life for residents in recognition of this threat. Called the Strategy for Wellbeing 2031, the plan aims to make the country a world leader in offering a better quality of life.

Government initiatives to promote wellbeing are welcome. However, it takes multiple public and private sectors to form a more rounded, holistic approach towards mental health. Nearly half of all mental disorders take root before the age of 14, which means it is essential that awareness and prevention begin early on – both in schools and at home.

Such initiatives are already being instigated across the country. The Greenfield Community School in Dubai, for example, launched a mindfulness programme for primary and secondary school children two years ago. And this month, more than 700 pupils at Dubai College began attending weekly wellbeing sessions.

What is needed is a seismic change at grassroots level – within schools, families, communities, healthcare centres and workplaces – that invite those suffering to express how they are feeling and to seek help before that suffering reaches a critical point. When people fall sick, they go to a doctor, get the necessary treatment and are not stigmatised for seeking help. The same should apply to those in need because of mental health issues.

Updated: October 9, 2019 05:41 PM

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