Saudi woman’s pioneering efforts to improve mental health in KSA

Dr. Haifa Al-Gahtani has been a pioneer for Saudi women psychologists in the Kingdom. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 June 2020

Saudi woman’s pioneering efforts to improve mental health in KSA

  • I’m working on developing more programs that suit the country’s needs with regards to therapists

JEDDAH: A pioneering Saudi psychiatrist has taken on a new challenge in her professional efforts to improve people’s lives.

In 2005, Dr. Haifa Al-Gahtani was the first Saudi woman to specialize in psychiatry through Saudi Aramco’s Physician Development Program. She qualified as a cognitive behavioral therapist three years later.

Now she has become the first Saudi woman to be accredited as a trainer/consultant in cognitive behavioral therapy by the Academy of Cognitive Therapy in Philadelphia. This means that in addition to her role as acting head of the psychiatry department of Arabian Gulf University and running her own clinic at the Renewal and Reward Center in in Safa, Dammam. Al-Gahtani can now help to train and guide a new generation of therapists.

“We have many practitioners of cognitive behavioral therapy in Saudi Arabia, but the number of trainers is quite low,” she said. “My next step is to work on increasing the number of qualified, accredited supervisors.”

While there is an abundance of medical doctors in Saudi Arabia, she added, the number of qualified therapists and mental-health professionals remains comparatively low. Al-Gahtani wants to address this imbalance by improving the quality of training.

“There’s not a set level that you reach and then you stop; there’s always room for improvement,” she said. “I’m working on developing more programs that suit the country’s needs with regards to therapists — specifically a collaborative effort between Arabian Gulf University and the Kingdom to train qualified mental-health professionals in psychotherapy and, particularly, cognitive behavioral therapy.”

Al-Gahtani has helped to train psychologists from the Ministry of Health and at the Renewal and Reward Center, and is also training psychologists as part of the “Mubadara” program, which aims to raise the efficacy of psychological services provided in the Kingdom in the form of practical intensive training.

Yet Al-Gahtani did not initially set out to become a psychiatrist. Although she felt an affinity for the subject at university, she decided to specialize in internal medicine at King Saud University instead. Later, through her scholarship with Aramco, she completed a degree in psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Dr. Haifa Al-Gahtani has become the first Saudi woman to be accredited as a trainer/consultant in cognitive behavioral therapy by the Academy of Cognitive Therapy in Philadelphia.

• While there is an abundance of medical doctors in Saudi Arabia, Al-Gahtani says the number of qualified therapists and mental-health professionals remains comparatively low. She wants to address this imbalance by improving the quality of training.

• She says that her interest in behavioral therapy stems from the fact that it helps patients to help themselves.

“Physicians deal with physical ailments when things go wrong, with pain and rashes, tangible things that are seen and examined,” she said. “Psychiatry is more complex, in terms of what humans are suffering from, something you see the impact of rather than the actual thing.

“As an example, with depression and anxiety, or even worse stages of mental illness, you see the effects in that the individual doesn’t eat or sleep, and they lose interest and contact (with others). They become detached and withdrawn because what they’re experiencing is internal, more in the way they think and feel and interact.”

She said that her interest in behavioral therapy stems from the fact that it helps patients to help themselves. They are encouraged to deal with their issues by changing the outcome of situations that have a detrimental effect on their mental stability, going through different reactions and scenarios until they develop a better coping mechanism.

“Part of behavioral therapy deals with oneself having the ability to make a difference in your own life, if you’re guided and provided an opportunity to do things differently, because the only way to change something you’ve been through is to do something completely different,” Al-Gahtani said.

She added that there is still a social stigma surrounding mental health, which she has come up against at times. It affects not only people suffering from mental health issues but also the professionals who help them.

“What surprised me when I chose to first dedicate my study to this field was hearing things not from my family, but mostly people I worked with, who would say, ‘Why do you want with this crazy major? It’s for crazy people. No one will want to marry you,’ which is nonsense,” she said.

Things have started to change, however, since she first noticed such attitudes during her studies 20 years ago. Many students she taught have gone on to pursue careers in the mental health field and attitudes towards mental illness have changed with the arrival of this younger generation, who she described as “very open.”

“That’s the difference I’m interested in: To change the stigma surrounding mental illness and the profession and specialty,” Al-Gahtani said.

“I urge those who are suffering in silence to seek help. There is nothing to be afraid of.”


Saudi Arabia's Maraya hall in historic AlUlawins major architecture prize

Updated 17 min 1 sec ago

Saudi Arabia's Maraya hall in historic AlUlawins major architecture prize

  • Maraya achieved the most public votes in its category and was named the 2020 popular choice winner.

RIYADH: Maraya, a concert and entertainment venue in AIUIa, northwest Saudi Arabia, has won one of the world’s biggest architecture awards.

The Architizer A+ Awards — hosted by New York-based community Architizer.com, a 7-million-plus online group of leading architects — consists of five peer-judged finalists, with one jury winner and one popular choice winner in each category. The awards promote and celebrate the year’s best architecture.

A finalist in the Architecture + Glass category, Maraya was selected by distinguished figures from industries including design, technology, real estate and fashion. Finalists were selected for excellence in architecture with criteria based on form, function, and impact.

Maraya achieved the most public votes in its category and was named the 2020 popular choice winner.

Philip Jones, chief destination management and marketing officer at the Royal Commission for AIUIa (RCU), welcomed the announcement, saying that although Maraya is closed for renovation, the venue will be have a key role when AIUIa reopens to visitors as a year-round destination in late 2020.

“It’s particularly gratifying to win the popular vote. Visitors are mesmerized by Maraya’s impact and the way it blends in so perfectly with its surroundings.

“Maraya has been conceived and designed in line with the RCU’s core values to develop AIUIa using a sensitive and responsible approach. AIUIa is a significant archaeological wonder and we look forward to welcoming the world when we reopen the sites,” he added.

The cube-shaped structure is covered in 9,740 square meters of mirrors that reflect the breathtaking surrounding landscape.

The building and its extraordinary facade were unveiled at a special ceremony staged by the Royal Commission for AlUla during the second season of the Winter at Tantora festival. The 500-seat venue has since hosted leading international artists, including Egyptian musician Omar Khairat and Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli.

It achieved a Guinness World Record for being the largest mirrored building in the world in 2019 with its 26-meter-high theater.

Maraya’s giant retractable window of more than 800 square meters can open to offer an experience blending nature and entertainment.

Maraya means mirrors in Arabic. The building, designed by Florian Bole and architect Massimo Fogliati, of Gio Forma, Milan, was inspired by the surrounding landscape.

The site was recently used a location for commercial film shoots by luxury brands including Cartier, Rolls-Royce and Monot.

Maraya is located 12 km from Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, Hegra.

The venue is undergoing further renovations, including increased capacity, a dedicated conference floor, a ground-floor restaurant and a stunning rooftop terrace overlooking the Ashar valley, oasis and desert surroundings.

Maraya will be well-positioned to host regional and international business events, conferences, weddings and other special events when it reopens for business in late 2020.