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Let’s Talk – Mental Health in the Middle East

At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.” – Michelle Obama 

May is a special month – for us here in the UK, spring is (finally) here and with it comes light, warmth and a sense of new beginnings. Interestingly, May is also the month that many have chosen to raise awareness of mental health, including Mental Health Week in Canada, Mental Health Awareness week in the UK, and Mental Health Awareness month in the USA. This is significant as the stigma and lack of understanding surrounding mental illness can leave sufferers feeling hopeless and alone, a stark contrast to the positivity often associated with the start of spring! 

While the countries mentioned are taking steps to raise awareness, educate communities and reduce stigma, countries in the GCC are also beginning to acknowledge the need to increase mental health awareness at a national level. I will be discussing both the challenges these countries face and the strides being made in the hope of contributing to, and encouraging, further conversations on mental health. 

In the UK, May 16th – 22nd is Mental Health Awareness week, with this year’s theme being “Relationships”. The Mental Health Foundation asserts that we need to put a greater focus on the quality of our relationships, and to understand how fundamental they are to our health and well-being. Meanwhile, the theme of Mental Health Month in America is “Life with a Mental Illness”. Mental Health America chose this theme in the hope that people will share their experiences, breaking down negative attitudes and misperceptions, while showing others that they are not alone. Canada’s Mental Health Week focused on the mental health and well-being of men and boys, while also acknowledging ways in which women need to take care of themselves in order to care for those around them. Each of these themes are extremely relevant to the current dialogue on mental health in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar with goals to reduce stigma and incorporate family and community relationships into treatment.  

In the Middle East, mental illness carries strong stigmas culturally, with a systematic review of mental health services finding “42 out of 78 (54%) of barriers to treatment and service implementation were due to a lack of acceptability within the cultural context.” Further to the social and cultural barriers to care, there are practical obstacles such as lack of quality services and accessibility. For example, in the UAE the rate of mental health professionals per 100,000 people is 0.3 Psychiatrists, 0.51 Psychologists, 0.25 Social Workers, 0.04 Occupational Therapists and 0.04 other health workers. These findings make it clear there is a shortage of mental health professionals and compounding this issue is the lack of dedicated mental health facilities and clinical training programs available in the region. 

Despite these challenges, countries in the Middle East have started to recognize the importance of the overall well-being of their citizens and include mental health plans in their National Health strategies. Mental health has been touted as one of the top priorities of the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), highlighting the need to end stigma and discrimination against those suffering from mental illness, increase early detection through education and public awareness campaigns, and incorporate family support. 

Until recently, there has been a lack of quality data on mental health in the Middle East due to the stigma attached. However, a report was completed in December 2015 which creates a picture of mental health in Dubai and will be used to assess who is at risk and to tailor services accordingly. A previous study done by the DHA in 2013 revealed that about one in five teenage students in Dubai showed symptoms of depression. Such statistics may be a sign of improved awareness, but they also highlight the importance of access to services for different demographics. 

The Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD) has classified mental health as an integral part of its strategy, with a view to develop mental health services for young people across the Emirate. Abu Dhabi opened the Maudsley Child and Adolescent International (Maudsley CAI) in the Autumn of 2015, a new child and adolescent mental health service run by South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in the UK. The health centre and the HAAD will work in partnership to host an annual conference which will “be aimed at sharing current practice and innovations in child and adolescent mental health”, the first of which took place in March of this year. 

Similar to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Qatar has launched a National Mental Health Strategy which sets out Qatar’s vision to “provide the best possible mental health services for our citizens, while changing attitudes towards mental illness.” Significantly, their strategy recognizes that a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body. Qatar has opened its first community mental health service, has begun to expand inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services in its hospitals, and has invested in training family physicians and nurses in order to provide loved ones and carers with additional support. 

Although mental health is receiving more recognition in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, there are still challenges and stigmas which need to be overcome in order for policies and services to be effective. Mental health is a global concern and according to the World Health Organization, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. So as we celebrate Mental Health Awareness week in the UK, I hope to see more awareness campaigns, research, services, and support for those who are suffering with a mental illness, everywhere in the world.  
Tagged In: Healthcare
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