Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 May 2019

Mental health care for Dubai's youth 'too little too late', say experts

Study of youngsters in Dubai suggests that early intervention will shape happier adults

The first report into mental health provision for children in Dubai has found many youngsters are not receiving help early enough to give them the best chance of living a normal life.

With no comprehensive figures on mental health available, experts from Dubai Health Authority surveyed those working in the profession, and checked local and international surveys to paint a picture of mental health requirements for young people.

The findings of the first needs assessment for mental health in Dubai were discussed during the Public Health Forum of Arab Health 2018, and the data has been condensed into a single document to help monitor trends and develop services.

The study will serve as a baseline for future work, and be repeated within four years to assess the effectiveness of new measures to help children and parents facing mental health issues.

Eating disorders were the most common mental health issue in young girls, whilst boys were more likely to have autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“As there is no registry, we are not able to get a clear figure to help the authorities plan the services that are needed, so we did some modelling and came up with an estimation based in surveys performed here and internationally,” said Dr Kadhim Alabady, senior specialist at the public health and safety department at Dubai Health Authority.

“This study has looked at all of the issues around mental health in Dubai, but we have also done the first study to focus on children.”


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Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes their potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life and can work productively.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and eating disorders were the most common in children, with experts spoken to in the survey estimating between 1-2 per cent of children have ADHD.

Experts said the figure could be as high as 5 per cent in some communities.

Although there are no official UAE figures, health experts said children were being wrongly branded as ‘naughty’ and are at risk of being expelled, instead of being treated for a psychological disorder.

Dubai Autism Centre told the survey that autism was the most common Pervasive Development Disorder, affecting one in every 146 births.

A focus group within the private sector identified that a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is seen and diagnosed by psychiatrists for the first time aged 12-13, following a request from the child’s school.

There are just 18 children, a rate of 12.4 per cent, with ASD at Dubai Rehabilitation for Disabilities Centre, whilst Dubai Autism Centre (DAC) catered for 53 children with ASD.

The experts said just 16.4 per cent of children aged 6-18 were referred for help through their families.

Between 2014-2015, 152 children received treatment at DAC, with 129 boys.

Researchers found eating disorders were more common in girls aged 13-19, but also found they were being well cared for by their GP.

An assessment of eating disorders to find out how common the condition is is being made with help from a study with Al Ain University that estimated about 1.8 per cent of girls aged 13-19 were affected.

“We’ve met with psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and managers to gather different views on mental health provision,” said Dr Alabady.

“In the interviews, we asked how many people were receiving treatment, and for which kinds of depression.

“It was clear not everyone with a mental health issue is reporting when they have a problem, because of a lack of awareness and the stigma that is attached in some cases,” he said.

Dr Nayla Daou, clinical psychologist at ClearMinds Centre for Emotional Health said the transitory nature of Dubai also made it harder for mental health issues to be reported since children struggle to confide in others.

“Families come and go, making it difficult for many children and teens to adjust socially.

“Many children fear getting close to others because they worry those children many end up leaving.”

She said children protect themselves by keeping distant but this can greatly contribute to their sense of loneliness and isolation.

Dr Alabady said the study highlighted the importance of helping these children earlier.

“It is not just a case of offering medication or surgery, these children need a lot of help and support to improve their quality of life.

“There is a huge gap in the continuum of care in terms of education, employment and housing,” he said.

“When the child reaches adulthood, there is a great strain on families, particularly in Dubai.”

Updated: February 1, 2018 05:50 PM