Thousands of people will walk the streets in darkness this weekend in support of a free mental health support network being built in the UAE.
Supporters of mental health issues will join the global Darkness into Light campaign on Saturday to increase understanding of debilitating conditions.
Last year, Dh160,000 was raised from UAE events, contributing towards research and treatment programmes.
Organisers are hoping to top that this year to fund monthly meetings supporting those affected by the suicide of family and friends.
The five-kilometre walks, in support of Irish charity Pieta House and Dubai’s Al Jalila Foundation, will set off at 3.45am from four venues.
“Walking at the darkest point of the night is a special time. It highlights a community for whatever people are going through,” said Maria Kelly, chairperson for Darkness into Light UAE.
“Our goal is to provide free mental health support from professionally trained volunteers.
“The majority coming to us suffer anxiety and depression, but often do not know who to ask for help.
“We are trying to provide a stepping stone to support,” she said.
Walkers wearing yellow shirts will set off from Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, Kite Beach in Dubai, Green Mubazzarah Park in Al Ain and Al Marjan Island in Ras Al Khaimah.
They will join international walkers at 200 venues across 19 nations and five continents.
Entry fees contribute to mental health treatment and a network of volunteers are providing vital assessments and support services when needed.
Free monthly ‘tea and talk’ group sessions offer professional advice.
People in crisis are referred to specialists for an assessment and then two hours of weekly help.
“Mental health is a worldwide challenge, but attitudes towards suicide here make it so much more difficult for people,” said Ms Kelly.
“Many are terrified to ask for help, and don’t know where to turn. That is the biggest restraint for people looking for support.”
Last year, Dubai Police announced sweeping policy changes towards failed suicide attempts.
Previous laws stated that anyone who attempted to take their own life, but failed, could be imprisoned for six months or fined up to Dh5,000.
Psychological support and counselling is now offered to those attempting suicide, rather than punishment.
“We are looking at offering a variety of options via a psychologist, psychiatrist, counsellor, life coach or yoga teacher - whatever help is most suitable,” said Ms Kelly.
Volunteers are most accessible in Abu Dhabi, with a growing structure to include support in Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Al Ain in the near future. Most hail from the Abu Dhabi School Counselling Network.
A typical day can involve moral support for a cancer patient, to meeting with a teenager whose friend took their own life through depression.
It may just be a listening ear but it could be directing a vulnerable person towards potentially lifesaving counselling.
Importantly, that is free of charge and without judgment.
“This year, we’ve increased our outreach projects in schools and held monthly interactive groups with 90 attendees at a time, so we have become more known,” said Laura Brennan, director for therapeutic provision.
“People simply want a safe, non-judgmental space to hear other people’s stories and to learn strategies for their own mental well-being.
“We are all inclusive and aim to normalise mental health, but fundamentally we need to change the conversation.”
Breaking down mental health barriers in the UAE appears to be working, with 250 more signed up to the 2019 walk, compared with last year.
Volunteers are aiming for charitable status and government patronage to expand their work and sustain the initiative through official recognition.
Forum attendees have a variety of motives. It may be to remember suicidal friends and family, or to ask for direct help and share a problem over tea.
They are attended by a wide range of ages from teenagers to those in their seventies, and from all backgrounds and nationalities.
“The data we have shows that depression rates in the UAE are as high as anywhere in the world,” said Ms Brennan.
“What is not on par with elsewhere is affordable, competent and accessible services in response to people’s needs.”
To find your nearest venue and for registration, visit: darknessintolight.ie.