Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 30 May 2020

While the stigma persists, so too will mental health issues

Mental illness needs to be taken as seriously as physical illness in the UAE, writes Ayesha Almazroui.

The more I read about mental health disorders, the more I realise that we lack proper awareness of this issue in this country. We are a society that is more focused on physical illnesses and more interested in understanding and preventing them than diseases of the mind. When we have a simple cold, we go to the doctor asking for medication. But when we feel depressed, we refuse to admit there is a problem.

Our culture consistently endorses many negative stereotypes towards people with mental illness. Many of us view severe mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia or bipolar, as “madness” and blame sufferers for not controlling themselves. Many of us look at depression and anxiety as a sign of weakness or an indication of the lack of religious faith.

This has created an intensified stigma that leads to the damaging internalisation of stereotypes, the concealment of diseases and other detrimental psychological outcomes that cause many social problems. Experts say that such stigma does not only make adherence to treatment more difficult, it also makes sustained reintegration of individuals into society extremely tricky.

Many of the people I have talked to about this issue deny it altogether. Some of them would even tell me: “We don’t need psychiatric treatments because we are a Muslim society. We just need to have more faith in God.” This is why seeking faith healing is more popular than seeking psychological support.

I realise that religion can be a positive force in improving mental health. Many studies have linked strong faith with improved mental health. Carl Jung strongly supported the role of religion in improving the state of mind. But let’s face it: not all of us have a strong spiritual sense.

And that is why I believe the UAE should do more to tackle mental health issues.

Research conducted by Dr Justin Thomas, an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and a regular columnist for The National, found that Qatar is the only GCC state with a national strategy for mental health.

Announced last year, Qatar National Mental Health Strategy is a five-year plan “to build a high quality mental health system and to transform the way mental illness is perceived and treated in Qatar”.

The policy’s main objectives, according to Dr Salih Ali Al Marri, assistant secretary general of medical affairs at the Supreme Council of Health, are “to promote good mental health, monitor improvements in patient care, regulate the service system and enact new mental health laws to safeguard the rights of people with mental illness”.

According to official figures in Qatar, one in five people suffer from a mental illness at any one time. However, fewer than one in four of those who need mental health services are accessing them. Local studies also revealed a low level of mental health knowledge and that negative perceptions about mental illness prevent people from seeking professional help.

There is not enough research on mental health in the UAE but I’m certain that people here suffer from all kinds of mental disorders, and many of them are reluctant to seek professional help because of lack of awareness or the stigma attached to it.

Add to that, the number of psychiatrists is still well below international standards, according to Dr Yousef Abou Allaban, medical director and consultant psychiatrist at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi. He told The National there is an acute lack of resources and comprehension in the local medical industry about mental health issues.

And so this country needs broad changes to address the issue, both by encouraging research in the field and by establishing an environment in which professional care is accessible and patients are aware and less hesitant to come forward. A mental health strategy should be incorporated into the expected reforms of the UAE health care system announced by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid last November.

Dr Thomas, who recently published his book: Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States, told me that it is certainly important for the UAE to have a far-reaching national strategy “to develop a concerted multi sectoral approach to the promotion of psychological well-being and reduce the burden and distress of mental health problems”.

He asked, “What is GDP for? Some would argue, to secure the well-being of the population”.


On Twitter: @AyeshaAlMazroui

Updated: January 26, 2014 04:00 AM