Sayyida Basma Al Said on the importance of nurturing mental health during Ramadan: 'It's not easy to admit you need help'

Meet the Omani royal spreading mental health awareness in the Arab world and beyond

Ramadan is a joyous and unifying experience, a time of spiritual reflection, self-improvement, worship and heightened devotion.

However, the challenges posed by the holy month might feel insurmountable for many, particularly for those affected by mental health issues.

"Ramadan is a very festive, happy month. It teaches patience and detoxes your body. However, it's a very delicate period for people suffering from mental health issues such as eating disorders," says Sayyida Basma Al Said, founder of Whispers of Serenity, the first mental health clinic in Oman.

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The moment you feel it's unbalanced and these feelings become recurrent, that's your red flag

"During Ramadan, our eating habits and lifestyle change. We might feel depressed, we might feel anxious or might experience OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). But up to what extent do we have it? That's the question you need to ask yourself. If it's balanced, it's OK. The moment you feel it's unbalanced and these feelings become recurrent, that's your red flag. That's the moment to seek help."

Having worked in the field for more than 20 years, Al Said is a pioneer and a champion of mental health accessibility. In 2014 she launched Not Alone, the first awareness campaign in the Sultanate of Oman aimed at shattering misconceptions surrounding mental health and facilitating access to support services.

"We all go through stresses in our life," she says. "It's not easy to acknowledge that we need help. I always appreciate all my clients because I think they're very brave and strong to come to someone they don't know at all and talk about their feelings."

The first step towards healing is acknowledging something is wrong, Al Said says.

"The second step is booking a session. The third is getting to the clinic. By the time they've arrived, they have already done a whole bit of getting better.

"So, if you don't feel like yourself any more, please don't leave it until it's too late, especially in times like this."

According to the World Health Organisation, mental health conditions are increasing worldwide. Between 10 and 20 per cent of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental health condition, with suicide the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29 year olds.

Two of the most common mental health conditions, depression and anxiety, cost the global economy $1 trillion each year. Despite these figures, the global median of government health expenditure that goes towards mental health is less than 2 per cent, according to a 2019 report published in The Lancet.

"It's sad because we've been talking about this for years," Al Said says. "It took us a pandemic to understand the importance of looking after our mental health and prioritise our mental wellbeing over our careers, our ambitions, our constant desire for more."

In the wake of the pandemic, Whispers of Serenity set up hotlines to support people of all ages. It also launched a new campaign, Pause, Breathe and Choose, to support health professionals with increased stress, anxiety and fear. The clinic is also developing a project with the country's Ministry of Education aimed at supporting children's mental health as "it's never too early to take care of our mental wellbeing", Al Said says.

"If anything, Covid has taught us to think outside the box, appreciate things more, be more mindful, more thankful and to work together. Exactly in the spirit of Ramadan."

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