x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Support groups in the UAE on the rise

A growing number of support groups are providing assistance for a variety of issues including dyslexia and bullied children.

Twenty months after the birth of her son, Joshua, Rachael Bentley still swaps stories with the friends she made during the antenatal classes she took at Health Bay Polyclinic.
Twenty months after the birth of her son, Joshua, Rachael Bentley still swaps stories with the friends she made during the antenatal classes she took at Health Bay Polyclinic.

DUBAI // The number of support groups in the UAE is on the rise for all manner of issues, including dyslexia and pregnancy, as the population of expatriates rises.

With so many people living away from friends and family, the groups provide advice or a much-needed shoulder to cry on. The issues they deal with can range from offering support to bullied children to helping couples cope with the impact of a financial crisis. Anita Singhal, who set up the Dubai Dyslexia support group in 1987, did not think it would still be going strong 23 years later. The group now sees up to 80 members per session, men and women of all ages and nationalities.

"We started it because there was a need for it," she said. "There were plenty of children with dyslexia and parents felt very isolated, they didn't know where to turn." Although UAE figures are not available, worldwide dyslexia is thought to affect between five and 17 per cent of the population. The group, which meets once every two to three months, is a forum for parents and specialist teachers to discuss techniques and learn from each other's experiences.

Each session consists of different activities and includes educational videos on the topic. The group, one of many focussing on children, can also run tests for dyslexia if needed. For many, the groups simply offer a chance to meet like-minded people of a similar age. Rachael Bentley, a 38-year-old teacher, joined an informal antenatal group when being away from her friends and family prompted her to find a new network in Dubai. She said she found invaluable advice and friendship at the Health Bay Polyclinic.

"It was almost like you were doing it as a group rather than going through it on your own," she said. "It put my mind at rest. It would have been a scary experience to go through without the support group." And the friendships have lasted beyond the birth of her now 20-month-old son, Joshua. She said she still "swaps stories and ideas with the other women". A support group that starts next month in Dubai will try to bring families of bullied children together to find the best way to deal with the problem.

The founder of Bullied Kids, Salomi Dewan, 49, a mother-of-two, said talking in an informal setting helps victims find courage by sharing their experiences. "Bullying is one of the issues that needs facing," she said. "And Bullied Kids is a place where you can find other people who have shared the same bad experiences." According to the World Health Organisation, 3.2 per cent of students in the Emirates claim they are physically attacked at least once a year. The Global School-based health survey from 2005 also showed one in five children said they were bullied at least one day a month.

Of the 15,790 pupils aged between 13 and 15 polled, 15 per cent said that they had "seriously considered" suicide. "Bullying needs to be dealt with correctly because it's becoming an epidemic at the moment, on all levels ," Mrs Dewan said. "Whether it's at school or at work, people are facing it in every way." Mrs Dewan is also increasingly worried about the tendency for some victims to take matters into their own hands and take "direct action". Their efforts would be better spent ensuring they have adequate emotional support, she said.

She also expressed concern that many victims did not speak out because they feared being seen as weak. "People are very wary to talk about their issues and are so worried about being judged. People are not very forthcoming so they don't get the right support that they are entitled to," she said. The economic crisis has also put strain on many people in the UAE and forced many to start new lives elsewhere.

The crisis prevention programme at the Indian Consulate saw demand for its services jump during the credit crunch. "There was a lot of anxiety about the uncertainty of jobs," said Sailaja Menon, a licensed psychologist. "People were highly anxious about the future and needed support." Since it began three years ago, the free scheme has offered help against depression, anxiety, stress and financial worries. Mrs Menon said the highest demand was for marital counselling.

"The purpose of the programme is to provide psychological services to members of the Indian community ? to address those clients who cannot afford professional psychological services," she said. * The National, with additional reporting by Mitya Underwood