New mental health strategy in Dubai targets service shortfall

Forum hears how medics aim to assist more young people

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 21 JANUARY 2019. Dubai Health Forum held at the Dubai World Trade Center. Nadia Dabbagh (wearing a business suit) and  Farah Aqel (wearing an Abaya) lead a talk on Dubai’s Health Strategy. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Nick Webster. Section: National.
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More mental health specialists are urgently needed in Dubai to cover a growing demand for services, experts have said.

New figures revealed nearly a third of the population of the Dubai emirate – en estimated 1.3 million people – are in need of mental health help.

The statistics were released at the Dubai Health Forum on Monday as health professionals discussed a new strategy designed to resolve the service shortfall.

Part of the initiative will see completion of two training programmes aimed at assisting primary healthcare workers in detecting early signs of the illness.

“There are burning gaps in mental health in the UAE,” said Dr Nadia Dabbagh, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Rashid Hospital, one of just two government mental health providers in Dubai.

“Issues stretch from awareness to prevention, including self-care, primary care, inpatient care, long-term support and outpatient care.

“Within those areas, there are also gaps in governance, a specialised workforce, education resources, financing and support services. That has been the reason for the new strategy.”


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Data from 2016 showed there were 1.53 million visits to mental health facilities in Dubai, with that figure increasing by 8 per cent annually since.

Just two clinics in the emirate - Rashid Hospital and Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital in Awir - are government run, while 46 are run privately.

“We have concerns in the mental health of young people, particularly around attachment (to strengthen relationships between young children and the primary caregiver) and socialisation in young children," said Dr Dabbagh.

“The majority of mental health problems start in the teenage years, and we need to take the links with social media seriously.

“Autism rates are increasing and we don’t know why.”

Currently, in Dubai, there are six psychiatric beds per 100,000 people, double the number for the whole of the UAE but well below the international average of 29 beds per 100,000.

Singapore has the greatest concentration of inpatient psychiatric beds, with 78 offered per 100,000, followed by the UK with 52.

The GCC region generally falls short in its provision of psychiatric beds, with Oman offering just three per 100,000, Qatar five and Saudi Arabia just 13, according to recent figures.

Demand for inpatient mental health services rose three per cent between 2011 and 2015 in Dubai’s Rashid Hospital, from 999 a year to 1,140.

“We are living in a time when the family structures required to raise a child in a healthy environment are not the same, with both parents often working,” said Dr Dabbagh.

“Society changes are impacting global communities.”

Speaking at the forum, mental health doctors said self-care was the ideal solution to increasing cases of depression, anxiety and other common mental health problems, followed by community care and better primary healthcare services.

They argued an efficient mental health strategy should encourage patients to become integrated into the healthcare system, and not to feel isolated or stigmatised.

Experts also raised the economic impact of mental health, with depression, anxiety and related substance abuse all having significant fiscal and efficiency costs.

According to a 2018 Global Happiness Report, mental health disorders, on average, reduce national income by 5 per cent. One in four people are likely to develop some kind of mental or behavioural disorder in their lifetime.

“We have been looking at different countries such as UK, Canada and Australia to learn from their approach to mental health services,” said Farah Aqel, a DHA healthcare strategist.

“We don’t want people to wait until they are sick before they access our services. Our strategy is to promote mental and physical well-being.

“If people need treatment, we want to stay with them through their journey.”