Amna Al Haddad represented the UAE in the Rio Olympic Games 2016 Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: As the first Emirati female recipient of The UAE Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, Amna Al Haddad has a powerful message to share. A young adult who battled depression through weightlifting and went on to qualify for the Olympics, she says there is hope even on the darkest nights. As she delivers motivational talks aimed at empowering others going through depression, she says, “Talking about mental illness increases the level of tolerance in society which is part of the UAE’s vision.” Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

How significant is the UAE-RCFJ recognition for you and for UAE women?

Being the first Emirati woman to be awarded the UAE-RCFJ through Al Jalila Foundation is an honour for my country and for myself. The programme is important for UAE women because it is in our hands to teach our children tolerance, understanding and kindness; the fellowship raises awareness about mental health in our region and can be a great tool to report accurately and non-judgmentally on stories where mental illness is involved.

Can you tell us about your experience with depression?

My journey with depression started when I was in my teen years. Depression or mental illness can affect anyone through their lifetime and it should never be taken lightly.

Personally, it affected my day-to-day activities, school work, relationships with family and friends and overall health. It was not an easy experience, but it made me a strong person who is able to help and empower others to do the same.

How did sports help you?

Sports played a big part in helping me through my depression and anxiety. Weightlifting saved my life as I was able to put my energy into something that could have positive results. I could use my negative situation and mindset for something more productive. I eventually became a professional weightlifter and made it to the UAE’s women team qualification for last year’s Olympics. I highly encourage physical activity for everyone to improve their overall well-being.

What are the main reasons for depression in the UAE?

Depression affects one out of four people worldwide and is not specific to the UAE. It is a condition that can be treated with medication, counselling, exercise, positive self-talk and other options.

The UAE is a country going through a lot of change and adaptability is an important characteristic to survive in such times. Our leadership is pushing for mental health services as part of the UAE’s national policy. There is no shame in reaching out for help, asking for guidance and admitting that one is going through a rough time.

What are the challenges in overcoming the problem?

Stigma is probably the biggest challenge, but with advocacy from influential people, this could change. It is important to distinguish the person from the behaviour or illness, as they are not one and the same.

Deep down they want to be happy, content and at peace with themselves and others; but external situations or hormonal imbalances could change that. Services are readily available for all mental illnesses conditions, whether behavioural or emotional. The only challenge that I see is the fear of what “people will think”. Your health and well-being is more important than that.

Your story is inspiring. How have you been spreading the word?

I was recently invited to give a motivational talk at the first official Darkness Into Light 5km walk that took place on Jumeirah Beach. More than 500 people had gathered before sunrise to support loved ones who suffer from mental illness. After my talk, a mother approached me and told me her young son wanted to give me a hug.

Knowing that I had an impact on a young child was heartening. By being open and honest, we can open the door for others to feel empowered to come forward and talk and make it less of a stigma overtime.