Local mental health support groups an essential service
A few years ago, I went through a traumatic life-changing experience. My world was shattered and I was engulfed by an unbearable and gut-wrenching pain. I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me and I fell into a dark abyss. My family and friends tried to console me. They brought me the obligatory flowers and mind-numbing celebrity magazines; others even compromised their morals and high standards to entertain me with gossip. The elderly encouraged me to seek comfort in God, read the Qur’an, and accept that everything happens for a reason and that whatever I went through would ultimately, in the larger scheme of things, be best for me.
Empathy and emotional support from caring individuals is a mere Band-Aid that allows you to feel a sense of relief for a short period. The responses, for someone suffering from depression for example, will sound nonsensical and vacuous.
I did not understand any of it, and I was convinced none of them did either. I hid and drowned in my own sorrow, believing no one understood and, more importantly, nothing could help me. I found solace in time, but I never recovered.
There are certainly many misconceptions around mental illness. For one, it always feels difficult to describe. It is not just sadness or helplessness. Nor is it rage or depression, though it can manifest in all of the above or none. It is not forthright or exclusive. It is multifaceted and a spectrum.
According to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease, “about 13 percent of the global population — some 971 million people — suffer from some kind of mental disorder.” It was thus no understatement when, in 2018, the UK appointed a minister for loneliness — a condition far worse for one’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Our cities are not short of psychiatric clinics. In fact, there is more recognition and understanding of these issues than there was 20 years ago. The social destigmatization has made people more comfortable in seeking professional help to address their mental health both privately and publicly. What we still lack in the Middle East, however, is a network of support systems that we can all feel we can relate to.
In the West, these systems are available and welcoming in the form of support groups. There are help groups for numerous mental and physical conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, depression and anxiety, grief, addictions, eating disorders, victims of domestic violence, and for cancer patients and survivors. Being inflicted with any of these conditions will make you feel isolated; it can therefore be very helpful to be with others who understand what it is like.
Only those who have experienced the same trauma as you can relate.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
These groups are anonymous. Most of them meet on a weekly basis to help you face your challenges and move toward rebuilding your life. They are usually available in local towns. Self-help groups are fully organized and managed by their members, who can even be volunteers who have had the same experiences.
In the UK, for example, the National Health Service provides extensive support for mental health patients. Their website includes links and information for those looking to find a local support group. A network of about 130 groups operates in England and Wales, offering specialized support and care based on the needs of the communities. These are run by a charity called Mind and rely on donations and volunteers.
The US Department of Health and Human Services also provides an online database with information on more than 1,100 organizations and centers that help individuals find the right support groups in their local areas. It also provides a list of all specialized support group resources, from postpartum to self-harm.
Closer to home, there is increased awareness of the importance of mental health and well-being overall. This year, the UAE launched the National Policy for the Promotion of Mental Health. Among the actions included in the policy are the provision of mental health services to outpatients, the development of mental health units for inpatients, and the establishment of community mental health services. Supporting anonymous self-help groups also needs to be part of the action plan. Encouraging the growth of grassroots groups in local towns is vital. These efforts can be championed federally or locally and can be government-led or through charities. They are also an incredible way to allow people to volunteer their time through organizing them.
Support groups allow individuals who have been through similar experiences to come together and share their stories, relating personal experiences without any fear of judgment. It can be cathartic for those who feel constantly alone. Only those who have experienced the same trauma as you can relate. It is through these support networks that you will know you are not alone.
Sometimes all you need is the courage of a handful of people, a safe space, and the cliched terrible coffee and donuts.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik