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In 2002, former First Lady of the US, Rosalynn Carter encountered a woman who seemed anxious. She and her husband were both working 12-hour shifts and were unable to look after their sick child. What resulted from the encounter was The Carter Center. One of the areas the Carter Center identified as neglected was mental illness and now the US initiative is working with Al Jalila Foundation in Dubai to tackle the same problem. 

At last week’s Dubai Health Forum, Dr Abdulkareem Olama, CEO of Al Jalila Foundation, referred to how mental illness is one of the leading medical issues in the UAE. “In 2013, we did research to find out what the common diseases were in the country,” he says. “The outcomes were obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health.”

Al Jalila Foundation see the mental welfare of UAE residents as one of their key priorities. “From 2013, one fifth of all our research went into mental health,” he says. “Since 2015, we have supported 70 scientists in Dubai and the UAE with a budget of Dh2.7 million to conduct research into mental health for children and adults. By 2030, mental health will be the second-leading cause of death or disability in the world.”

Since its inception, Thomas Bornemann, Director, Mental Health Programme at The Carter Center, has seen significant advancements in the understanding and treatment of people suffering from mental health conditions across the world. 

“When Rosalynn Carter got into the business, it was a wide open field and not much was known about mental health or how to treat it,” he says. “The tools we had were primitive by today’s standards and it usually involved a lot of direct care from parents and family members.”

Bornemann believes there is no reason now for people to be not provided with the help and treatment they need. “Now we do have great tools to fight mental illness, so there’s really no excuse to not provide at least a modicum of care and relief from stress.”

Mental health journalism programme

One of the greatest success stories from the Carter Center is the establishment of a mental health journalism programme. The intention of the programme is to educate journalists and writers on mental health issues and ensure they are equipped with the vocabulary and knowledge to drive public perceptions of mental illness away from previous stereotypes about craziness into a more empathetic understanding of the various psychological illnesses. 

“The programme has been in multiple countries across the past 16 years and we’ve trained more than 1,500 journalists,” says Curtis Kohlhaas, Chief Development Officer, The Carter Center. “It’s won Peabodys, Pulitzers, Emmies and many other awards. 

“We’re now here in the Middle East with Al Jalila Foundation 
and we’re in our second year with the UAE. We have also helped move the policy discussion forward in the US as well as in other countries.”

The foundation doesn’t just work in the Middle East. It has worked extensively across Africa, including in Liberia, following President Charles Taylor’s departure after the country’s bloody civil war. Following the war, large swathes of the population were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf invited the foundation to come and share their expertise. The Americans made a significant impact and now there are front-line mental health workers in all of Liberia’s states. “In communities, we are helping to train mental healthcare workers,” says Kohlhaas. “We have built an infrastructure for mental health care for that country.”

Enlightening local populations

One of the philosophies of the Carter Center is to train and educate the local population. This philosophy has now been applied to the UAE. “Our mental healthcare programme here in the Emirates is staffed by Emiratis or residents who have been here a long time,” says Kohlhaas. “We have worked on creating public mental healthcare training programmes in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Sudan, where we worked with local universities. It helps to prevent brain drain and it’s cheaper and more cost-effective.

One important element of using locals to work in the field of mental healthcare is that they often have a deeper understanding of the cultural and social nuances of their countries. 

“The training can also be contextualised,” says Kohlhaas. “If you’re sending someone from rural Sudan to Atlanta to a public healthcare school, they will be learning American healthcare. Many issues are universal but not all of them.” 

A national issue

One of the most troubling statistics on mental health in the UAE came from the World Health Organisation’s global school health survey. It found that 14 per cent of children between the ages of 13 and 16 had seriously contemplated suicide. 

Luckily, the UAE is addressing this and its approach has won admiration from the team at the Carter Center. 
“The UAE should be commended because it takes great pride in being at the forefront of mental healthcare,” says Kohlhaas.

Dr Olama believes that equipping the population with the means to fight mental illness is the best way of ensuring they lead the most fulfilling lives possible. “If you give people tools to fight their disabilities, they can live lives without limitation and reach their potential,” he says.