Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

UAE's nanny culture a factor in mental health problems, expert says

A government agency will offer Dh2 million as support for start-ups working on well-being and wants to 'start a conversation' about the issue

Many Emirati and expat families hire nannies or maids to do home tasks and look after their children. The low cost of labour and the financial need for both parents to work often plays a part in the decision. Amy Leang / The National
Many Emirati and expat families hire nannies or maids to do home tasks and look after their children. The low cost of labour and the financial need for both parents to work often plays a part in the decision. Amy Leang / The National

Children who are cared for by nannies may be at greater risk of mental health problems in later life, a leading psychologist has warned parents.

Dr Sandra Willis, an adviser to the Abu Dhabi's Department of Community Development, is concerned the widespread practice is causing attachment issues and is a factor in fuelling a mental health epidemic.

Dr Willis spoke at an event organised by Ma’an, a government agency which has launched a drive to improve mental well-being services for residents and wants to promote a culture of openness about psychological issues.

“Attachment is really key, particularly for young children, in their first year of life,” said Dr Willis, a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York.

“This is where it starts, but this is where we tend to hand off our babies to others, because all they need is feeding, changing, sleeping, right? Actually all the science opposes that.”

Experiments have showed importance of engaging with babies, for example, by making eye contact and speaking to them, Dr Willis said.

However, she said she was concerned some infants may not be getting enough attention, particularly if an overworked employee mainly cared for them. Even if they did get good care, a nanny leaving her job could cause other problems, she said.

On average one in four people will suffer a mental health difficulty at some point during their life. Abu Dhabi is no different and it is essential that we begin a conversation

Salama Al Ameemi, Ma’an

“I do feel it impedes secure, long-term attachment,” she said of hiring nannies.

“We all know nannies are on a contract, it’s cyclical, they will leave.

“So what happens with children when their principal carer, to which they are attached, leaves? That’s assuming there is a positive attachment with the outsourced help.

“Often if you’re overworked, and it’s not your child… it’s a challenge even if it is your own child to maintain positive and healthy relationships.

“So you need to treat that domestic worker well, with kindness, compensate them appropriately, give them leave to rest and do their jobs effectively.”

Ma'an announced it would offer more than Dh2 million to support social start-ups with ideas to improve mental well-being among residents.

Dr Willis, who has also worked as an adviser to the Dubai government, welcomed the move.

Salama Al Ameemi, Director General at Ma'an, explains how the new social impact bonds will work. Satish Kumar for The National
Salama Al Ameemi said Abu Dhabi needs to begin a public 'conversation' about mental health. Satish Kumar for The National

It was vital to bring “mental health and emotional well-being into the light,” she said, and for new programmes to cater to the “unique” needs of Abu Dhabi communities.

She also called for more in-depth studies and publicly available data about mental health in the UAE.

“We need to normalise this subject and talk about what is affecting all of us, day in and out, to try to break down the myths and the stigma that is very entrenched in our community,” said Dr Willis, who grew up in Sharjah.

“The [statistics] are alarming enough to prioritise this issue above and beyond all else. We only perpetuate the stigma and the myth if we don’t come forward and become honest about mental health - it’s endemic in our community.”

Ma’an, which was set up earlier this year by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Community Development, provides funding and support to non-profit organisations in the emirate.

The first cycle of its "social incubator" programme focused on supporting projects to help people with disabilities.

The second, launched on Sunday, will focus on mental well-being, and Ma’an is looking for 10 social start-ups to support.

A separate accelerator programme will provide additional funding and business support to five established social enterprises.

As well as funding, social businesses could be offered office space, training, expert mentorship and access to investors.

Applications are open until February and UAE residents or those willing to relocate to the country are eligible to apply.

“Mental well-being has become an increasingly important issue around the world and on average one in four people will suffer a mental health difficulty at some point during their life,” said Salama Al Ameemi, Ma’an director general.

“Abu Dhabi is no different and it is essential that we begin a conversation to understand the support that communities need to cope with mental well-being challenges.

“Ensuring that our community has access to the right services is vital and we want to encourage new social enterprises to come forward with solutions that will help people address their mental well-being challenges,” she said.

Updated: November 25, 2019 06:44 PM

SHARE

SHARE