It’s 3.45am and I’m standing on an Abu Dhabi beach in the dark. But it’s not what you might think - I’m not alone for a start. More than 1,600 people are around me, waiting to walk from Darkness into Light in support of those affected by suicide, depression and anxiety.
“Everyone has a reason for being here this morning,” Maria Kelly, one of the volunteer organisers, says from a stage.
“Look around you, you are not alone. No one will ever walk alone in Abu Dhabi as long as Darkness into Light is here.”
Volunteers read out poems from people about why they are walking. Suicide is a common theme - people are walking for friends or family they’ve lost or because they’ve suffered from mental health issues themselves.
There’s a minute’s silence before we walk and the quiet on that beach is near spiritual as the call to prayer breaks across the bay.
We’re told to grab a candle from a display that spells out HOPE and “shine a light through Abu Dhabi”.
The walk is a leisurely 5km around the grounds of Emirates Palace. A sea of people in yellow T-shirts chat and laugh as they make their way round, stopping to take pictures of the city lights and the Presidential Palace.
The sun is rising by the time we pass under the yellow arch to clapping volunteers, congratulating us on what is so much more than a very early morning walk.
Darkness into Light started in Ireland in 2009 to raise money and awareness for Pieta House, a charity that helps people dealing with mental health issues.
Ten years on and there are walks in 20 countries across five continents. In the UAE alone there were four walks today, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah.
Proceeds from the walks will support the Al Jalila Foundation’s work, building a vital, free mental health support network in the UAE.
“Darkness into Light started just to make life a little bit easier for those who are suffering in our community and to give them the support that is out there because there is so many people in our community who do want to help and we just need to make that platform easily accessible to show support and to make sure those who are suffering get the help that they need,” Maria Kelly, chairperson of Darkness into Light Abu Dhabi, said at the finish line.
“This morning has shown us how amazing our community is, with more than double our registrations from last year.
“We’ve had over 1,600 people walk, it’s just amazing. But it just goes to show how many lives mental illness has touched and how many have been affected by suicide or mental illness.
“We can all make life easier and help those suffering by making it OK to not be OK.”