x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Emirati speaks out against mental health stigma

Aida made countless visits to hospital, until a doctor suggested her symptoms may be connected to her mental well-being and not something physical.

Jennifer Bell

ABU DHABI// A week after her uncle died, Aida became convinced she too was dying.

"I felt sick all the time," the 39-year-old Emirati said. "I was dizzy and had chest pains. I felt like I was losing control.

"It was driving me nuts. I became convinced that I would die too."

At first Aida, a capital resident, thought her problems were linked to something physical. Every heart spasm and every dizzy spell triggered a trip to the emergency clinic.

Aida thought she had a heart condition or something more sinister.

"A Cat scan, a heart scan, blood tests; you name it and I had it," she said. "I was at the emergency room so many times complaining that I felt dizzy or I felt faint."

It was only when one doctor suggested that her problems might lean towards her mental well-being rather than physical health that Aida sought help from Dr Yousef Abou Allaban, medical director and consultant psychiatrist at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology.

It was Dr Allaban who told Aida she was suffering from anxiety disorder, most probably triggered by the death of her uncle.

"At first I thought 'what am I doing here?' but then everything fell into place," Aida said.

"He cut straight to the point," Aida said. "He was completely honest and said I would need medication and I would probably need to be on medication for two years."

After starting the medication and having one-to-one sessions with Dr Yousef, Aida felt markedly better after two weeks. Three to four months later she felt like her old self again, she said.

Aida spoke out ahead of a conference in Dubai yesterday, called "Women's Mental Health: Where We Are and Where Should We Go". The conference will also be held in Abu Dhabi today.

The conference addresses mental-health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as eating disorders, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorders and the effects of domestic violence on women.

The World Health Organisation statistics show that depression and/or anxiety affects more than 350 million people worldwide, of which about two-thirds are women.

The problem, the health organisation predicts, is on the rise across the world. In fact, it predicts that within 20 years, more people will be affected by the condition than by any other illness.

Aida wanted to share her story to encourage other women not to suffer in silence.

While she felt the courage to be open with her husband, family and friends about what she was feeling, Aida acknowledges many other women are too afraid to admit they have a mental-health issue and seek the help they need.

Stigma, especially among UAE residents, is often a factor in why women do not speak up about their mental well-being.

"Once I realised what was wrong with me, it was a huge relief," Aida said. "I would 100 per cent recommend others to seek help too. For me, Dr Yousef is my guardian angel.

"Getting treatment for mental health is just as important as getting help for any other medical condition. There is nothing to be ashamed of."

Two years on, Aida said she now feels fine but has regular sessions with Dr Allaban.

"I still have an occasional panic attack but now I laugh about it because I know what it is," she said. "I accept it and move on."

 

jbell@thenational.ae