Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

UAE Portrait of a Nation: The Irish sailor who makes waves with her mental health work

Marie Byrne arrived in the UAE for the America's Cup that never was and stayed to deliver counselling to adults and children

Sailing instructor Marie Byrne arrived in the UAE ten years ago in the hope of following her dream of watching the Americas Cup, which was due to take place in RAK in 2009. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Sailing instructor Marie Byrne arrived in the UAE ten years ago in the hope of following her dream of watching the Americas Cup, which was due to take place in RAK in 2009. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Irish teacher Marie Byrne set sail for the UAE ten years ago in the hope of achieving her dream of watching the America’s Cup up close a few years later.

Due to be held in off the coast of Ras al Khaimah in 2010, the venue was switched to Valencia in Spain following a complaint from the American team and subsequent legal battle over unfair racing conditions. Ms Byrne, however, chose to stay in the UAE after securing a job teaching special needs children at Sharjah English School.

A keen sailor and experienced skipper, Ms Byrne became an established figure in the RAK sailing community. But once the prospect of hosting the 33rd America’s Cup vanished from the coast of the Northern Emirates, so did a lot of the investment and sailing opportunities.

Ms Byrne then moved south to join the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club. Relocating to Dubai made her realise there was a growing need for mental health support for adults, as well as children, outside of her day job.

She has since merged her skills as a UK-trained bereavement counsellor and sailing instructor to help troubled people find the answers to life’s difficult questions.

“It was then I joined the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club. I bought my first boat, a 24-foot yacht called Osiyeza.”

Osiyeza was named after a South African anti-apartheid song, meaning 'the crossing'. Marie had worked for 15 years in mental health in the UK before relocating to the UAE, and the more people she met through her new life in Dubai, the more she realised there was a demand for mental health support services there.

Since then, demand for her specialist services and mental health training has led her to focus alongside her teaching on one-to-one counselling sessions.

She has written a book using the case studies of those who have gone through the self-actualisation programme she teaches. The process encourages people to explore the root cause of mental health issues so they can be dealt with free of medication and long term mental health support.

Self-Actualisation: Against The Odds was published this year and it offers a road map to helping people deconstruct mental health issues. It was four years in the making.

She now wants to train others in the techniques used to help people come to terms with the way they live their lives.

“My work is about helping people to find the answers to their issues within themselves,” she says.

“It is positive psychology that Is based on the Rogerian theory, giving people the tools to get unstuck from whatever position they have found themselves in.

“When they find that root cause, it releases that person from the process driving their anger and frustrations.


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Sailing is a male dominated world, says Ms Byrne, who now regularly races her new yacht, Dreams, in official events at DOSC and skippers a largely all male crew. The challenges she has faced on the world’s oceans have helped teach her valuable lessons to can pass on to others.

“If you win a race as a woman, other boats ask 'what man was on the helm?'” she says.

“Attitudes can be frustrating. Solo sailing has given me real belief that if you have a real passion for something and set out to achieve a goal, it can be done.

“What I have achieved has shown me this method works. Anyone can be whoever they want to be if they work hard enough. If I can do this, anyone can.

“There must be a commitment to want to change, that is most important.”

Updated: November 1, 2018 11:12 AM