Exclusive Meet Kuwaiti woman in UAE on a mission to end stigma against mental illness in the Arab world Latifah Al Essa says fear of opening up keeps people suffering in silence Published: July 24, 2022 08:32 Anjana Kumar, Senior Reporter Follow us Latifah Al Essa, who is a cognitive psychologist with a career spanning over a decade, has founded a platform called Ayadi to help people in need of mental healthcare in the region. Image Credit: Supplied Also in this package Photos: UAE President Sheikh Mohamed's first state visit to France - highlights Photos: UAE President meets President of Senate of French Republic UAE weather in pictures: Dust storm and rain sweep many parts of the country Photos: UAE President Sheikh Mohamed's first state visit to France Dubai: A Kuwaiti woman in Dubai is on a mission to remove the stigma around mental health issues in the Arab world. Latifah Al Essa, who is a cognitive psychologist with a career spanning over a decade, has founded a platform called Ayadi (which means helping hands in Arabic) to help people in need of mental healthcare in the region. “Our vision is to tackle and eliminate the mental health stigma in the Arab world,” Latifah told Gulf News. “Mental health is a widespread concern in our region, and a highly stigmatised topic that is inadequately discussed and addressed. Within the GCC alone, approximately 15 per cent of the population is believed to suffer from mental health problems at any given time, and the numbers continue to increase. This is a conservative figure considering the stigma surrounding the topic and the difficulties people face when opening up about mental health.” Mental health is a widespread concern in our region, and a highly stigmatised topic that is inadequately discussed and addressed, says Latifah Al Essa. Image Credit: iStock photo. Life-changing event She added: “I have been on both sides of the spectrum – coming to mental health from the perspective of both a therapist and as an individual seeking support. I created Ayadi in the wake of my grandfather having to come to terms with Alzheimer’s disease. This was life-changing for him and my family, but beyond the disease itself, a huge challenge was finding therapists who could offer support.” Latifah said that everyone touched by mental health issues is affected in different ways and has their own story, but there are times when all need help to navigate life’s challenges. “Sometimes friends and family are enough, but at other times, the confidential, non-judgemental support of licensed experts may provide a safer space for individuals that otherwise feel uncomfortable with opening up, or who may very well face stigma in doing so,” she added. Before founding Ayadi, Latifah spent six years working as a cognitive psychologist at the Kuwait Centre for Mental Health, where she provided individual and group therapy sessions for children and adolescents. She conducted monthly workshops related to eating, mood and neurodegenerative disorders. During her tenure, Latifah said she founded the first psychoeducation programme for adult patients with depression and bipolar disorders, and introduced group therapy sessions for addiction. Latifah also worked at Fawzia Sultan Healthcare Network and Soor Centre for Professional Therapy and Assessment, where she additionally provided individual counselling for autistic children. It was when she volunteered for Ataa Relief in Syrian refugee camps that she began to think of an app for mental health care. At the camp she delivered group therapy sessions for adolescents and assisted with art therapy for children. How Ayadi works Ayadi connects people with a network of licensed and bilingual mental health experts through an easy-to-use web and mobile app via video, voice and text-based sessions. The platform’s mental health experts “understand the region’s social and cultural nuances”, and provide a HIPAA-compliant therapy service that the users can trust. “Through a combination of online therapy and community support, the platform offers a safe and secure space for people to talk about mental health and the challenges they face in their daily lives,” Latifah said. “Ayadi brings down the barriers to seeking support by making the experience easier and more convenient for users. To start with, our community is a safe space for people to talk freely, connect with others with similar experiences. The platform helps to learn about mental health, and ask experts for advice. Users can also book video or voice sessions with over 50 bilingual mental health experts – all from the convenience of their own space.” Essa said when she started work on Ayadi, she first began with informal groundwork, researching how to create a start-up, educating herself on the mechanics of running a business, learning about product development, and speaking to potential users and partners. Ayadi was officially launched in October 2020. Women empowerment Latifah said raising funding for Ayadi was not an easy, particularly as a female entrepreneur in “a male-dominated tech industry”. “In the last few years, there has been a clear shift though in the perception of the traditional gender roles and a drive towards empowering women in the region, but there is still a big gap to be bridged,” said Latifah, who also volunteered for the UK charity Attend, where she coached rehabilitated patients with non-progressive brain injuries on transitioning back into employment. “The fundraising challenges for female entrepreneurs are prevalent not only regionally but globally. This is an ongoing obstacle to progress, and change will only occur once awareness of the institutional and social biases at work leads to tangible action and the creation of more equitable financing frameworks – including better support for female-led ventures,” she said.