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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

The pioneering Emirati women removing the 'stigma' of mental illness

With Hope UAE is using social media to give a voice to people battling mental health issues

Reem Al Ali, one of the founders of With Hope UAE, is encouraging people to speak out about their mental health struggles. Victor Besa / The National
Reem Al Ali, one of the founders of With Hope UAE, is encouraging people to speak out about their mental health struggles. Victor Besa / The National

A pioneering group is tackling the stigma of mental health issues in the UAE to ensure that nobody needs suffer in silence.

The group – With Hope UAE – is using the power of social media to encourage people to open up about the dark troubles of their lives in the hope of building brighter futures.

Using the hashtag #mymindmatters, dozens of people have taken to social media to tell of their struggles with mental illness, a subject still considered taboo by many in the UAE.

Many have happily taken up the baton of hope passed on by the group to discuss their own stories of sexual abuse and harassment in the hope others will be encouraged to speak up.

The group was started less than three years ago by a group of five Emirati women determined to help others – no matter what some people thought.

Some even felt the need to hide their volunteering trips to psychiatric hospitals from their families, such were the misconceptions about mental health issues, but they remained faithful to their cause.

The organisation has held talks and workshops at hospitals and hosted major exhibitions highlighting their efforts in Dubai.

“At our last event, everyone was shocked that people were coming forward to talk about sexual harassment, abuse, bullying and things that have been going on for years in the UAE but no one was talking about it,” Reem Al Ali, vice chairman and one of the founding members of With Hope UAE told The National.

It all started in 2015 after a philanthropic trip with the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, she said.

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“After the trip we formed a book club and one of the books chosen was How to Change the World, which discusses people who have changed the course of history. One of the stories was about a mother who had a child with mental health challenges. That story touched the heart of one of the members, Fatima Moussa, and she started to question and wonder about mental health in the UAE.”

Ms Al Moussa approached several psychiatric hospitals in the UAE, seeking answers and offering to volunteer.

One hospital responded and the group became the first to be allowed to volunteer there.

“When she started her journey, she got help from another member who was an artist and so they began doing art therapy for patients and gradually went every week. They did it for a few months and then realised that they needed help,” she said

“They sent an invitation to all of their friends and that day, only five people ended up coming and it is the same five that formed the only non-government organisation advocating mental health in the UAE,” she said.

The group of five began going every Saturday for two hours to give workshops that ranged from art therapy to field trips for patients.

“We did this for an entire year and we noticed that all the patients really wanted was people to talk to.

“It really makes you think, why is there this big stigma? Why are they not accepted by society,” she said.

“In the beginning even telling family that I was volunteering at a psychiatric hospital was not only difficult for me but for the other members as well. Our families didn’t accept it and some of us even had to lie in the beginning about where we were going.”

After a year of volunteering and because last year was the UAE’s Year of Giving, they decided that it was time for them to go on social media and start asking people to volunteer, coming up with the name With Hope.

The group’s signature is a floating red balloon.

“Cancer has the red ribbon so we wanted something symbolic to mental health. The red balloon we felt symbolises hope and hope is essential to give people the motivation to keep moving forward despite the adversity going on with mental health and the stigma around it.”

Today there are 10 members, Emirati and non-Emirati.

“We are a group of people with no medical background who are passionate about the cause. Some of us suffer from mental health problems and have been through the challenges and felt that there is a niche that hasn’t been tapped into. What we envision is a society that supports and accepts people going through mental health problems.”

Ms Al Ali has gone through her own personal battles with depression and anxiety. “Depression for me started when I was in university and recently anxiety. I did seek help because it was affecting my health. Back then I didn’t tell anyone.”

According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.

“The UAE lacks a lot in mental health but we are starting a little with the policies,” Ms Al Ali said.

In June, Dubai Police announced that people who attempt suicide should be seen as victims and not criminals.

Those who attempt to take their own lives will be given psychological support to help tackle the causes of their issues, while a hotline will be set up dedicated to those suffering with mental health problems.

The policy marks a sweeping change from current UAE law, in which a person who attempts to end his or her life is punished by a prison term of up to six months or a fine of up to Dh5,000 – or both.

“Change takes time and it will take persistent and passionate people to bring about this change. It won’t happen overnight.” Ms Ali Ali said.

The group will focus on their current #mymindmatters campaign and has more workshops in the pipeline.

“For us it is very important to have a deep impact so it is quality over quantity. I’d rather be able to affect five people in a deep way rather than hundreds of people in a superficial way.”

For more information on the group, email withhopeuae@gmail.com