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Mental health in the UAE – how are we coping?

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A large volume of people who needed mental health support existed even prior to 2020, says Dr Saliha Afridi.

October 10 marked World Mental Health Day, continuing to raise awareness on mental health and well-being. As the healthcare industry strives to provide quality care across all disciplines during the pandemic, the conversation surrounding mental health is becoming increasingly vocalised to ensure patients do not suffer in silence. According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19) Lockdown on Mental Health and Well-Being in the United Arab Emirates, which surveyed 4,426 participants, findings indicated that over 36 per cent reported increased stress from work, home, and financial matters. Also, 43–63 per cent of the participants felt apprehensive or helpless due to COVID-19. Females, younger participants, part-timers, and college or university graduates were more likely to have a high Impact of Event Scale (IES-R) score. The score is a measure of post traumatic stress symptoms related to a specific event.

However, the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the UAE was highlighted and published in a 2015 WHO report, reportedly recording the highest level of depression among all countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. “The large volume of people who needed mental health support existed even prior to 2020. In fact, the greatest number of people on our waiting list at The LightHouse Arabia was in October 2019, months before there was any sign of COVID-19. Having said that there was and there is a shortage of mental health providers in the region and most clinics have a waiting list of people that are waiting to be seen by a professional,” explains Dr. Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director at The LightHouse Arabia.

Although there are limited detailed statistics on mental health, anxiety and depression in UAE are the top 10 causes of ill health, according to a report published by the Ministry of Health and Prevention - UAE (MOHAP). The most diagnosed mental health ailments surfacing among patients, they can also be the byproducts of disorders such as borderline personality and bipolar disorder “Personality disorders can often have a dual diagnosis of ADHD, mood disorders, or substance use disorders. However, there are a lot of people who are misdiagnosed by doctors who are not trained to give psychiatric diagnoses, as well as by people who self-diagnose and self-medicate in the region based on something they read on WebMD. There needs to be more awareness about how a psychiatric diagnosis is given and what are the dangers of a wrong diagnosis. ADHD, Depression, Bipolar I and II, and personality disorders are the most frequent misdiagnoses,” says Dr. Saliha.

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Dr. Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director at LightHouse Arabia

Although strides have been made in addressing the well-being of individuals by supporting mental health, studies indicate that there is a burden of social stigma holding patients back from seeking psychological services in the UAE. To help overcome this, MOHAP has launched Hayat (life), a programme for mental health support during the pandemic. Also, the National Programme for Happiness and Wellbeing launched a dedicated telephone counselling hotline to help those with psychological concerns or anxiety. Private clinics such as The LightHouse Arabia also provide free psychologist led support sessions for the community, low-cost group treatments to encourage sustainable methods that tend to the growing need for mental health support, and provide practical webinars and skill-building workshops, which equip people with skill-sets to cope with stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Virtual healthcare is becoming a preferred platform for consultations, highlights Dr. Saliha. “Many patients are opting for online support from therapists in other countries because they cannot find a suitable therapist in their city. People are learning the benefits of the in-person once they have engaged in the virtual therapy process during COVID-19. Virtual healthcare has its benefits and works for certain types of therapies and a specific set of clients. It has helped so many people cope with COVID-19’s lockdown, and allowed people to stay connected with their therapy process no matter where they were in the world. Although we are now back in person, there are those who are busy parents or executives, teens with hectic schedules, and those who struggle to make it into the clinic for medical reasons that are continuing to benefit from online therapy. However, we cannot underestimate the power of co-regulation that is happening between two nervous systems within the therapy room. To have a connected and attuned witness is a key agent of healing and transformation in the therapy process. Also, most people find that their laptops and devices are associated with stress, work, fragmentation, and distraction and do not find it as therapeutic to engage in the therapy process on the device with such association.

"It is important to remember that the journey to the therapist, the safety and confidentiality of the therapy room, and the therapist’s physical presence are all part of the healing and transformation that takes place in the therapy process. Lastly, and importantly, there are some people who are at high-risk due to the severity in their clinical symptoms, who are not suitable for online therapy, and should identify in-person, in-city, crisis support if they are engaging in online therapy,” she concludes.

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