AQF Views & Voices: Policy & Practice

mental blog

Mental Health First Aid in the UAE

Alya Saif Al Ghais

One in four people will struggle with a mental illness during their lifetime. Mental illness is an umbrella term for a wide range of mental health issues and disorders. They commonly have no outward signs, cannot be visually identified, and there is a wide range of them. Like with all illnesses, some are severe, and others just need some care and attention to be treated or managed properly.

Having studied psychology at university abroad, I had little knowledge of the current state of mental health awareness and treatment in the UAE when I returned home. Since then, I've seen that here, mental health does not receive the kind of attention it deserves and numerous misconceptions still exist about what psychology is and what therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists do to help people. 

In this region, the idea that mental health issues can be treated is relatively new. Mental health issues still hold stigmas, shame, and discrimination, which makes it hard for people to seek help. More people in the UAE could benefit from treatment, but the negative image of mental illness and the belief that mental health medications could cause addiction is affecting the way people deal with their challenges. 

With the support of the Al Qasimi Foundation, I was chosen to attend an introductory Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training course in Dubai with Lighthouse Arabia. The course I took was intended for people that are responsible for supporting people suffering from mental health issues. 

In the training, we learned that psychology deals with the human mind and human behavior, both on the individual level as well as for groups. Psychology seeks to understand how and why we act to improve human relationships and human care. As such, it has two very important components; research into the way the mind works and research into why people behave the way they do— informing therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists' work of trying to help people live happier, more productive, and more satisfying lives. 

Psychology is important not only for the study and treatment of mental illness, an increasing proper understanding of the self and others, but it can also help us build good coping mechanisms for trauma and stress, as well as social, emotional, and communication skills. More importantly, it can help us build effective relationships among individuals, groups, and nations. 

We also learned in the course that mental health issues have a lot of different causes. People who suffer from biological mental health issues have a chemical imbalance in their brains, making it hard for their moods and feelings to be changed without help or lifestyle changes. Environmental factors can also affect a person's brain function, for example, mental health can be affected by traumatic events, stress, lack of sleep, etc. 

Taking courses, such as the MHFA course I took, allows us to be able to notice the signs and symptoms of various mental health illnesses and disorders, such as depression, which is one of the most common disorders people suffer from. For example, if someone loses interest in something that they used to have a lot of interest in, has changed in their productivity at work or home is withdrawing socially and has changed in their sleeping and eating habits, mood, etc. We could then approach the person and help them get the treatment that they need, instead of leaving them to suffer in isolation. 

People need to recognize the symptoms of mental illnesses, such as depression, and to recognize that these conditions can be treated. It's essential for people to seek the help they need and to see a professional that has the expertise to provide that help. Moreover, suicide is a major health problem around the world and there is an overlap in terms of an increased risk of suicide, mental illness, and in particular depression and substance use. It is important to express concern and love and to share the message of hope, with people, but most importantly to support them in seeking the professional help that they need. 

It is important for people diagnosed with mental illness, as well as their family and friends, to understand that they can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan. For example, common treatment options include psychotherapy also known as talk therapy or counseling, and medications, etc. Often the continued stigma around mental health in the region prevents people from getting the help they need to live their best life, making a temporary, treatable issue a lifelong problem for them and their families. 

In addition to courses such as the MHFA, the Emirati community needs an active psychological organization that is responsible for our society, ensuring a scientific and methodical approach to the concept of psychology. The organization should raise the level of awareness of mental health issues among members of the society, conducting workshops and training for students, parents, teachers, practitioners, publishing research on issues related to psychology, and providing research services in the psychological field for individuals and public establishments. 

In conclusion, it is important to acknowledge mental health disorders as illnesses and by providing people with mental illness the same level of support and understanding that we provide those with physical illness. In a globalized era and fast-changing world; we cannot ignore a discipline that is the backbone of human knowledge and progress. Currently, mental health does not receive the kind of attention it deserves and numerous harmful misconceptions still exist that are barriers to treatment, causing countless to suffer needlessly and impacting their ability to live happier, more productive, and more satisfying lives.