Tom Keya on Analysing the current mental health situation in the UAE

Tom Keya is a lawyer, business development consultant and analyst with a strong interest in improving mental health in the workplace.

Mental health problems in the UAE are soaring during the pandemic, according to a new study.

The research looks at the psychological ramifications of COVID-19 and shows that more than a third of the population report their mental health deteriorating.

Conducted by a team at the United Arab Emirates University, the University of Sharjah and Zayed University, the study found that 36% report a significant increase in stress due to the fallout from the pandemic. Almost 4,500 people were included in the survey, giving a useful insight into how a proportion of the population of the UAE is suffering from mental health problems.

Mental health issues increasing in the UAE due to the pandemic

Results from the study show that 27% of respondents are feeling severe mental health distress. Almost two-thirds report feeling apprehensive, helpless and worried. The data also shows that younger people, university graduates, part-time workers and women are more likely to come forward with mental health issues. The research was conducted two months after the first death from COVID-19 was recorded in the UAE (May 2020).

The study included people from across all seven emirates to give us a useful cross-section of how people are faring during the pandemic. Dubai researchers say that among people regularly using psychiatric services, the most common mental health issue being reported is depression.

Other studies across the Gulf back up these results, with a survey of adults in Saudi Arabia showing that there are moderate rates of anxiety reported by the general population. Again, this has increased since the pandemic began.

And while the results are concerning, the fact that this research has even been conducted shows that attitudes towards the significance of mental health problems in the UAE is finally maturing. We are increasingly seeing mental health issues being recognised at a useful level.

More awareness of the importance of mental health is needed

Mental health is a vitally important part of the wider community’s health, and I’m really pleased that we are finally seeing high level, widely publicised research targeting the UAE. We need this to move further into the mainstream conversation both in and out of the workplace.

I’ve always advocated for the importance of dealing with mental health issues within the workplace. I see it as the employer’s duty to ensure that employees are fully supported for physical and mental health, and that means ensuring some kind of infrastructure is in place.

Whether this is an offer of on-site counselling or mental health days when necessary, there are many ways business owners can contribute towards improving their workforce’s mental health. And this is particularly important during times of crisis, such as the pandemic.

Mental health is moving slowly towards mainstream conversation in the UAE

Bringing mental health into the mainstream conversation across the UAE means that more people will feel empowered to find help for their issues. Without the old-fashioned stigma attached to people with mental health problems, we have much more of a chance of opening up useful conversations with those who are suffering.

Officials are also helping to open this conversation in the traditionally closed off UAE. For example, recently the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed spoke about the importance of openness across society regarding mental health. He urges open discussion in order to eliminate any lingering associated societal stigma.

More and more helps are available too, with community mental health support on the rise. For example, an organisation called Safe Space located in Dubai offers free support for mental health problems through a range of strategies including corporate partnerships, events and provision of services.

Co-founder of Safe Space, Dani Hakim, explains the importance of corporate mental health support. She says: “This last year, many people experienced challenges that created a perfect recipe for anxiety and stress. At Safe Space, we have noticed a considerable uplift in our corporate clients’ interest in more proactive solutions.”

Safe Space is a great example of a service provider that offers wellness strategies to corporate clients who want to find new ways to support their staff. By using technical and digital solutions, the supportive infrastructure can be levelled up by providing support for those who aren’t comfortable talking to their managers or peers about any problems they’re experiencing with mental health issues.

More official support is needed to ensure everyone has access to mental health services

Any provision for mental health services across the UAE is welcome and it’s encouraging to see more emerging. Pre-pandemic, there was no doubt that mental health provision in the UAE and the general sector of psychology and counselling don’t meet the needs of a growing population.

The main Government body responsible for mental health legislation in the UAE is the Ministry of Health (MOH). Along with the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) and the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD), the MOH is managing the slow shift of mental health services into primary care on the frontline.

There remains just one recognised public association for psychologists in the UAE, which is called the Emirates Psychological Association (EPA). Its mission is to continue to raise awareness of mental health problems across the Emirates and to improve general access to services that can help. And while research is improving, mental health remains one of the undervalued areas of official scientific research.

Mental health awareness must absolutely improve across the UAE. The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on juts how much of the population is affected by mental health problems. And these range from general anxiety through to severe PTSD and psychological problems that can risk people’s lives.

Progress is being made across the UAE with ensuring there are services available to everyone, whether they’re old or young, rich or poor and dealing with physical or mental disorders ranging from anxiety to depression and chronic fatigue. Proof of this progress can be seen with the following mental health services that have sprung up over the last few years in the UAE:

  1. Thrive Wellbeing Centre, Dubai

The Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai supports people via a range of mental health treatments. Launched in 2018, its approach is mainly centred around acceptance and empathy. Treatments are scientifically backed and designed to give long-lasting assistance through licensed counsellors and psychologists.

  1. Wise Mind Center, Dubai

Services are provided in English and Arabic and include individual counselling, couples therapy, support groups and various assessments. The centre is committed to creating a sense of a supportive community by providing a confidential safe space for people struggling with mental health problems.

  1. Maudsley Health, Abu Dhabi

Internationally renowned, Maudsley Health is actually headquartered in London. It’s Abu Dhabi clinic benefits from the institution’s 700+ years experience in delivering healthcare. The clinic offers lots of different treatments for people struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD and many more conditions related to mental health.

These are just a few of the mental health services currently available in the UAE. My hope is that as the stigma of mental health continues to dissipate, there will more assistance available where it’s needed most.

I am also excited to see a range of apps and tech material coming in to help with these issues and I will cover this in my next article.