Mental health
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Abu Dhabi: A series of mental health reforms in Abu Dhabi emirate are set to expand coverage and access to treatment for residents, senior officials said at conference in the capital on Friday.

The reforms are also placing a concerted focus on upskilling primary care physicians so that mental health challenges are identified at the primary care level, and treatment even provided for mild to moderate cases.

Mental health for all

Speaking at the third edition of the Abu Dhabi Integrated Mental Health Conference, officials said the ultimate aim of the overarching mental health strategy for the emirate is to ensure access to mental health services for all.

Neil Clark, advisor to the Department of Health (DoH) in Abu Dhabi, said authorities had identified gaps in mental health services and care in 2017, including the under-diagnosis of mental health concerns, and a less than optimal model of care delivery.

“We were directed by the Abu Dhabi leadership to develop a mental health strategy. And we produced an overarching strategy of mental health in Abu Dhabi, which had a vision that every resident in Abu Dhabi should have access to mental health and preventive treatments,” Dr Clark said.

Delegates listen to a presentation at the conference Image Credit: Supplied

Collaborative effort

The World Health Organisation estimates that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.

Abu Dhabi’s mental strategy has been developed by a number of regulators, including the DoH, the Abu Dhabi Public Health Centre, the Early Childhood Authority, the Family Care Authority, the Department of Community Development, and the Department of Education and Knowledge.

Mental health hotline

One major outcome of the plan has become well-known since the COVID-19 pandemic - the mental health hotline. Even though it was launched before the pandemic, its importance came to the fore when the pandemic brought with it multiple mental health challenges, said Dr Ghanem Al Hassani, group education officer at public health provider, the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha).

Primary care shift

Seha is also responsible for another major element of the policy that involves shifting mental health treatment away from specialised services to community and primary care.

“We have already trained about 50 to 60 of our primary care physicians to detect mental health concerns, and offer treatment for mild to moderate cases. So even if you report a somatic complaint to your physician – such as a backache or a headache – the physician will be able to identify any mental health components, and either treat you to refer you to a specialist,” Dr Al Hassani told Gulf News on the sidelines of the conference.

These primary care physicians can also prescribe medication to treat common mood disorders like anxiety and depression, which are known to affect 10 to 15 per cent of the population in every community, as well as other common conditions like eating disorders and substance abuse.

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According to Dr Nahida Ahmed, conference chair and chair of the DoH Mental Health Taskforce, more upskilling workshops for primary care professionals will be held this year. In addition, 450 professionals have been trained in suicide prevention thus far.

“In addition, the strategy has standardised care for mental health, with the manuals for special care and primary care to be published this year,” she said. This will ensure clear treatment pathways for patients seeking treatment in the emirate.

Dr Nahida Ahmed addressing the gathering Image Credit: Supplied

Another area of focus is enabling the reintegration of patients into the community following mental health treatment for conditions like substance abuse.

Improved standards of living

Implementing the full strategy is expected to improve residents’ wellbeing, while also yielding many economic benefits.

“We did an economic impact assessment to demonstrate that every Dh1 spent could save Dh1.4. [The ultimate aim] to improve the standard of living, have less people unemployed because they are unable to work due to mental health conditions, see less people absent from work due to mental health challenges, and increase the performance of children in schools because they are mentally sound and able to understand and deal with mental health challenges that come their way as young adolescents,” Clark said.