It was out of desperation, six months ago, that Lan Duong sought out Meetup.org for anything to do with mental health or depression. The civil engineer, 26, from the United States, lives in Abu Dhabi and says she has endured an ebb-and-flow experience with depression for several years.
While Duong sees a doctor weekly and takes additional steps to help herself, including meditation, she says: "Even with all of that, sometimes you get in a rut and you need a little bit of extra support. The problem here is I really don't know anyone else who is going through the same thing. So I see my doctors, but it kind of feels like you're fighting the battle alone."
As luck would have it, Duong’s search turned up details about an forthcoming monthly event called Tea & Talk, held by the Abu Dhabi chapter of Darkness into Light. Since then, it has been a regular fixture in her life.
DIL was started in 2009 by a psychologist at Pieta House, an Irish non-profit organisation, to serve as a fund-raiser for suicide prevention and counselling. It began as a five-kilometre walk, which happens every year on May 11, and has since spread to 180 countries, aiming to send a powerful message by starting at the darkest point of night, just before dawn breaks.
Maria Kelly introduced the organisation to Abu Dhabi in 2015, eventually partnering with Al Jalila Foundation. The all-volunteer group held its first walks in Abu Dhabi and Dubai last year, expanding to Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah this year. In the past year, its monthly Tea & Talk events in the capital have attracted 50 people on average, with as many as 185 people attending in some venues, including Manarat Al Saadiyat and Cafe Arabia. Tea & Talk also just been launched in Dubai, and DIL has even taken its message to four schools.
On December 6, the group will mark its second annual Light Ball at Hilton Abu Dhabi. The awareness-raising event was started by Will and Mick Magee, two brothers from Ireland who lost their mother to suicide.
Kelly has a full-time job as a maths teacher with the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge, and she also has a master’s degree in mental health and recovery, and social inclusion. She explains that DIL fills a real gap in the UAE, where professional therapy is out of reach to many, with costs of up to Dh800 for a single session that are often not covered by standard health plans for residents. “It’s heartbreaking, really, [because] it’s not accessible to a lot of people,” she says. “The majority of people who come to Tea & Talk are those who cannot afford to go to a psychiatrist or a psychologist.”
DIL can help provide access to therapy, either funded through the annual walk or sponsors of the annual ball, who can donate sessions through partner organisation Camali Clinic. The monthly talks, in turn, serve as a stepping stone for those who feel isolated because they are struggling emotionally, Kelly adds. “It makes it easier for them to talk about it and get the help that they need.”
The common theme of every Tea & Talk is that everyone is going through something, says Laura Brennan, DIL’s director of therapeutic provision and a counselling psychologist. “We have people of all ages, from typical high-flyers to those who could be working in retail or driving a cab. Some parents even bring their teenagers to the event, while others are in their 70s,” she says.
The sessions have a range of guest speakers, from Lisa Laws, a local life coach, hypnotherapist and addictions recovery specialist, to Niall “Bressie” Breslin, an Irish musician, author, sportsman and mental-health activist, who spoke at last month's Tea & Talk in Abu Dhabi.
Brennan explains that her methods to get people talking aren’t reminiscent of some corporate retreat. For example, she doesn’t introduce basic icebreakers to create an atmosphere of contrived comfort. Instead, she says: “It’s like a public energy centre that enables people to recharge simply by being there. And when you get people all feeling that same vibe, the conversations that come out are very authentic, and enable people to connect and feel understood.”
Brennan, who donates her time by leading the sessions, often goes out of her way to help. After seeing Duong lurking in the back, Brennan reached out and the pair met for several hours over coffee the next day. "She spotted that there was a girl who wasn't in her right mind," says Duong, who has continued to attend DIL's monthly meetings and marks the moment as a turning point.
Duong didn’t expect to expand her social circle at a gathering for people struggling with their mental health, either, but she has done exactly that. “You make really meaningful friendships,” she says. “Because you all have something to share; you’re all fighting something or you know someone who’s fighting something.”
Duong recommends the group to anyone struggling with depression, anxiety, mood swings or isolation, or even someone who wants to be more empathetic to others. “To me, it’s much more than a mental-health support group,” she says. “It’s just a very human environment.”
The next Light Ball is on Thursday, December 6, at 7.30pm at Hilton Abu Dhabi. Tickets cost Dh475. The next Tea & Talk event in Abu Dhabi and Dubai will be held on January 22. For more details, visit Darkness Into Light Abu Dhabi’s Facebook page and Instagram account