Mental health in the UAE: Three men open up about their battles and how they overcame them

Three men talk about how they struggled to overcome pain and depression to mark Movember, in which men’s mental health issues are pushed into the spotlight.

Omar Al Busaidy. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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You might have seen them on TV, heard them on radio, or read their stories in the newspapers – three men who have experienced some of the toughest mental challenges life can throw at us.

To mark the end of the annual Movember campaign, during which men’s mental health is one of the highlighted issues, they tell us about their personal battles and how they learnt – and are still learning – to overcome them.

Omar Al Busaidy

The author of the self-development book Just Read It, Al Busaidy is a global shaper at the World Economic Forum, and one of the judges of the 2017 Hult Prize (a global competition to find the next generation of social entrepreneurs). The 30-year-old Emirati is also the Tourism Investment Promotion Manager at Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. He recently hosted heads of state at the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

“When I was 21, I had tuberculosis in my spine and one of my vertebrates collapsed. I had to have major back surgery, and now I have titanium plates in my back. It wasn’t just the physical pain I felt, but the helplessness. I lost my male dignity because I was bedridden for months. I couldn’t go to the restroom by myself, and I had to be bathed on my bed. For a man, that just kills your ambition and all the things you aspire to in life.

“What helped me get through this was first admitting that I was going through that state. Because I think especially for men, we tend to keep it in – it’s a guy thing. It doesn’t have to be ­someone who is close to you that you talk to, but someone who ­understands you.

“I had a very good friend from theUnited Kingdom, Alan Ferman, who helped me go through that difficult time. He sat holding my hand and talked to me. He didn’t just feel sorry for me – because I didn’t want sympathy. He’d speak to me about the things he knew I was interested in – like how the teams were performing in the Premier League.

"He gave me a book, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, which made me realise that my situation wasn't half as bad as others before me. It also motivated me to help myself get better. I started believing that I could cure myself, and in no time, I was out of hospital and feeling much better. You could say it was miraculous but it was just science - changing my mindset helped me to heal myself. I do believe that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I've been through many challenges – I've been demoted and fired from jobs, I was stabbed, I've been divorced, and I've became stronger because of my mental attitude.

Jeff Price

Jeff Price.

For 23 years, Price, a British DJ, has been involved with a radio stations in the UAE, including Radio 1, 2 and 4, as well as working behind the mic as a TV and radio presenter. In February, the 44-year-old was diagnosed with hydrocephalus – a condition that causes fluid to build up in the brain. After three rounds of brain surgery, he is slowly recovering.

“The diagnosis came completely out of the blue. At first I went into a state of complete calm, which really surprised my family. I was diagnosed with depression eight months later. My initial calmness may have contributed to me eventually becoming depressed, because I suppressed it all.

In the summer, the day after my 14-year-old daughter Maddy arrived from the UK for a visit, I found out that I needed more brain surgery, which was a huge disappointment. I really missed interacting with her and also playing with my four year-old, C J, over the summer.

The lack of medical knowledge about my condition has added to my sense of anxiety and anguish. You can tell when I’m not very well because I go as white as a sheet and my headaches are bad, but what’s incredibly frustrating is that you can’t see this condition. It’s affected my short-term memory and my ability to think under pressure, and working in the creative field, having to entertain people was a real challenge. When you’re feeling down, presenting can be the hardest job in the world.

I’m really thankful to my family and the amazing friends around the world who’ve helped us. So many people have jumped into action for me.

I’m also very grateful for my sense of humour. My doctor told me ‘if you lose your sense of humour, then you’ve lost it all.’

If I could get some counselling, I would. I’ve always found that talking about issues helps. The money isn’t there for us, and the need for counselling isn’t really recognised here, although things are changing. Finding someone, or a group, that you can share your struggles with is crucial.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve taken a real interest in how the brain works, and how we are as people. I think it’s made me wiser. Its only when you’re forced to think about life’s fragility that you begin to appreciate it. Before my diagnosis, I used to take everything in life for granted. My Facebook memory today was from a few years ago, when I had so many gigs lined up – entertaining thousands of people, and presenting the Rugby Sevens live on TV. I’ve always been very competitive and wanted to succeed in life, and I’ve had to change my outlook considerably since then. It’s been a humbling experience. I think one of the most positive things to come out of this is that it’s made me a calmer person. “

Ross Barfoot

Ross Barfoot.

A partner at the global law firm Clyde & Co, Ross lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife, Lisa. In December 2013, their 15-year-old son, Louis, took his own life. The couple, from the UK, set up the Louis Smith Foundation to help other families in the UAE with children suffering from mental anguish.

“When Louis died, our whole world fell apart and the idea of having to do anything normal, like look after ourselves, just wasn’t in the forefront of our minds. The Abu Dhabi community really rallied around us – our friends, and also people we’d never met would come to our house, fill our kitchen shelves with food and cook us meals. That meant we talked a lot about what had happened. Some people feel uneasy about approaching the subject, but if somebody wants to talk to me about Louis or suicide, I’m happy to talk, because I see the benefit. But there are things I don’t mention. I compartmentalise – it’s a coping strategy to think ‘I’ll put that away and I won’t think about it, because that makes me feel upset.’

Pouring our energy into the Louis Smith Foundation was our way of coping. We’re a very open family, and we thought Louis knew that he could talk to us about anything – but we didn’t get the opportunity to help him. There’s nothing we can do that will change what has happened, and we miss Louis every single day. But if we can raise awareness to help other families, then that helps us with our grief.

We’ve started a parents support group which is going very well, but it’s almost entirely women coming to it. They’re saying that their husbands are burying their heads in the sand and not wanting to come to terms with the idea that their child has a mental health issue.

There’s that phrase ‘be a man about it’, as though we men should close ourselves off to emotions. But actually if you cry in front of somebody, it means you’re a strong person who is comfortable with their emotions. We need to be passing this lesson onto our children, and hopefully eventually we will change these gender stereotypes. They only lead to young men suffering alone, because they’re too embarrassed to ask for help. Then they don’t realise what they’re going through is common and can be treated.