JEDDAH: Many people are discouraged to seek therapy because of the social stigma around it. People are afraid to be perceived as mentally ill, and do not think of therapy as a normal or healthy option.
Saudi 19-year-old psychology student Najwa Hafiz, who is also an International Coach Federation accredited life coach, has set out to challenge that misconception.
“I often hear people say: ‘How would a stranger solve my problems.’ There’s such a huge misconception about what a therapist does in our society. A therapist is not there to solve your problems. They help you understand your problems and where they stem from,” Hafiz told Arab News.
“They offer you healthier coping mechanisms that will guide you to understand yourself better, as well as those around you. People think a person has to be ‘disturbed’ in order to go to therapy, which is absolutely not the case. People can go to therapy for very normal life stressors, like adjusting after college graduation, becoming a new mom, or just for improving their stress management skills.”
She said people do not realize that talking can be powerful, and even life changing.
“I try to end the shame that is associated with mental health and therapy by simply speaking up. The more we talk about it, the more ‘normal’ it gets. For example, I'm working on an Instagram campaign that features stories of people who went through depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and more. This way people can connect with others through storytelling. Hopefully, people can view mental health in a more compassionate way through this campaign.”
In an effort to normalize therapy in Saudi society, Hafiz created an exercise book, Kalakee’a.
“It consists of exercises that help us deal with our thoughts in a healthier manner in order to improve our quality of life. One of the chapters is based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a method that aims to correct harmful patterns of thinking that cause people difficulties. This can drastically change the way they feel about a certain obstacle. Also, Kalakee’a contains exercises about mindfulness, the inner child, happiness and more.
“I knew I wasn’t the only one who was going through this struggle. We are such complex beings. Our brain is the most complex structure in the universe. Sometimes, we need extra help to rationalize and effectively deal with our emotions.”
She added: “I hope Kalakee’a serves as a tool to help people do that. Through Kalakee’a, I wanted to make people realize that life is not all happiness but, it’s also not all sadness. Life is simply a balance — a balance of our thoughts, a balance of the happy and the sad, a balance of our strengths and weaknesses.”
She explained that in Arabic, the word “kalakee’a” means a collection of knots that have been intertwined together, and she chose the name to decrease the stigma around mental health.
“I believe we all have ‘kalakee’a’ embedded within us, we just need to acknowledge them and consciously choose to better our ways of dealing with them. If doing so, we are enhancing our quality of life and letting our authentic self break through. We are very complex beings.”
Hafiz highlighted that Saudi Vision 2030 includes initiatives to normalize mental health care.
“Counseling clinics have been added to 82 health centers throughout the Kingdom — the total number of counseling clinics has been doubled. In addition, Saudi Vision 2030 strives for a society that is educated and connected as one, which are two factors that will hugely contribute to the way we view therapy.”
Hafiz is also working on creating community groups with the Adult and Child Therapy Center (ACT).
“The group strives to provide an environment where people can overcome hardships as one interconnected society in order to reach renewed meaning. It gathers people and allows them to talk freely about their struggles. I host the community group alongside one of ACT’s therapists, Alya Nassief. Each month we offer a different theme for the group. For example, in April we did ‘grief’ and the following month we did ‘body image.’ This gives everyone a chance to attend whichever group they relate to.”
She is currently working on a project with the founder of Jeddah’s Kids Lounge, Amal Abdulwahid, to teach children about emotional wellbeing.
“Kids Lounge is a space that offers artistic, social, and self-development activities. We are collaborating to teach kids about emotional and mental wellbeing. Currently, I'm preparing the curriculum that integrates various interactive activities in order to create an awareness on emotional wellbeing for children. Kids are the core foundation of our society. Opportunities that come to me like these always fill me up with gratitude and remind me why I started Kalakee’a.”