From migrants to mountains, there is seemingly an "international day" for everything. But today, the spotlight turns to mental health. This year, the theme set by the World Health Organisation is Mental Health in the Workplace – something that, at long last, is being given the prominence it merits.
According to WHO statistics, more than 300 million people suffer from depression worldwide, and it is now "the leading cause of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety". A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion (Dh3.67 trillion) each year in lost productivity, and many of the problems, it discovered, stem from workplaces that harbour bullying and harassment.
Nobody wants to spend the majority of their waking time in an environment that causes such extreme stress. It is a problem that, in the 21st century, is becoming more prevalent, with a plethora of communication platforms making it easier than ever to be either a bully or a victim. To say it is bad for business would be a massive understatement.
However, the WHO says there is a flip side. Employers "that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains". This is something close to the heart of Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and the managing director of The LightHouse Arabia, a wellness clinic in Dubai that has helped countless people deal with the stresses of life. To mark World Mental Health Day, Afridi and her colleagues are launching an initiative called Mental Health First Aid.
"It's a system that was created in Australia in 2000," Afridi says. "The intention is to train, over a minimum 12-hour course, anyone who is interested in becoming what's essentially a 'first responder' for mental-health issues. We are all surrounded every day by people – friends, family, colleagues – who might be going through deeply personal problems that remain undetected until things get out of hand. We want to help people identify specific traits in others and to be able to get them to seek professional help.
"It's such an awkward thing to speak about, though, and even if we know someone is suffering from anxiety or other forms of depression, what are we supposed to say or do? Anyone who undergoes these courses will be fully prepared to use tact and empathy to get people to open up."
The courses can also be adapted to suit specific workplaces and industries, and LightHouse's team of doctors and therapists has spent a great deal of time talking to teachers, students, employers and their workers.
"We've spent eight months getting this together," Afridi says. "We flew the experts in from Australia to train us individually, because the process has to be exactly the same as it is in other countries. And like literal first aid, this isn't a treatment – it's a vital first step towards getting people fixed by professional counsellors and doctors.
"Companies are waking up to the importance of dealing with the subject of mental health in their staff, and this year, we started to be asked to address problems relating to workplace issues. It's a hugely positive step because, for so long, very real problems have been brushed off as 'just work stress', but as we can prove, that costs industry untold sums of money through losses in productivity."
Afridi says there are many people in the UAE who aren't personally aware that they're standing at the top of their own slippery mental-health slope. "Every expat is here working, away from their homes and families, many facing often huge problems with relationships and financial issues. People aren't sleeping enough and this alone causes physical and mental problems, but there's also a tendency for people to confuse pleasure and actual, deep-seated happiness."
The biggest indicator of happiness is deep connections in human relationships, she advises. But that is under threat from technology. "Electronic devices are eroding this, with many of us not realising the extent of their impact on our lives," she says. "Children are subject to horrendous online bullying, and parents are spending what should be quality time with their families doing nothing but chatting with others over the internet, all the while alienating their kids. We need to address this and recognise symptoms, especially in children, of mental-health problems that can have devastating consequences if left unchecked."
There is some good news, however, Afridi says. We are increasingly becoming more aware of the importance of mental health.
"It affects practically everybody in this country," she explains. "I go to schools and offices all the time to talk about the issue and these days there are no blank faces, no confusion – everyone understands what is being spoken about because it's something everyone can relate to, no matter the social background or job someone is in. Whether we're a construction worker or a chief executive, the problems and stresses we face are basically the same, and now they should be easier to identify in others so they can get the help they need."
To learn more about the Mental Health First Aid training courses, visit www.lighthousearabia.com