TheNational hamburger logo

Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 27 February 2021

UAE support group's mountain retreat allows men to open up about mental health

Counselling group Anyman established the Wadi Shawka hideaway to address suicidal thoughts and depression

  Michael Leonard and Saif Al Bitar hope to encourage men to open up about their feelings and address their mental well-being.  Pawan Singh / The National
  Michael Leonard and Saif Al Bitar hope to encourage men to open up about their feelings and address their mental well-being.  Pawan Singh / The National

A new mountain hideaway in the UAE is offering sanctuary for men dealing with a range of mental health problems.

Anyman, a group of male counsellors who treat depression, anxiety and related disorders, set up base camp in a farmhouse tucked away in Wadi Shawka, in the foothills of the Hatta mountains.

The retreat provides men’s emotional leadership training (Melt) to help them bolster their well-being and allow them to open up about their experiences.

According to the University of Oxford, men in the UAE are 3.5 times more likely to take their own lives than women.

Men are geared towards expressing anger, shame or joy and that’s it. This course is like taking a cross-fit class for your emotions

Saif Al Bitar, Anyman counselling

It is a similar pattern worldwide, according to Our World in Data figures recorded from 1990-2017.

While related problems remain taboo or stigmatised in the region, one of the four Anyman counsellors, Emirati Saif Al Bitar, hopes sharing his experiences can help others.

“This is a self help support group where we teach men how to embody their emotions and connect to whatever is going on with them inside,” he said.

“It teaches empathy, connection and how to be honest with yourself by normalising emotions.

“Men are geared towards expressing anger, shame or joy and that’s it.

“This course is like taking a cross-fit class for your emotions.”

Mr Al Bitar was born and raised in the UAE, but later moved to Thailand after failing to find his place in society or an outlet to deal with his problems.

When he returned he met the Anyman group while he was applying for a job.

The connection developed into building the men-only retreat to help others like him.

“I was on the fringe, with addictive, compulsive behaviours from repressed trauma,” he said. “Anyman really helped me and we want to encourage more of an Emirati demographic to get involved.

“That is where a lot of the repressed issues are. They are stressed out and many feel they have nowhere to turn.

Saif Al Bitar hopes to encourage more Emiratis to join a mental wellness camp for men set up by the Anyman project. Pawan Singh / The National
Saif Al Bitar hopes to encourage more Emiratis to join the mental wellness camp for men. Pawan Singh / The National

“We want to build their emotional intelligence.”

A daily agenda is brutal in design, in an attempt to encourage men to bond and open up about their emotions in a challenging environment.

Attendees arrive on Thursday afternoon and are up early on Friday morning for a sunrise walk before a series of yoga sessions and meditation.

That is followed by an intense nine hours of conversation and training to encourage men to discuss deep-rooted concerns.

A similar programme is completed on Saturday before the men return home.

The course attracts a variety of people. Some have attended previous therapy sessions elsewhere, others have been referred by specialists, while most are seeking help for the first time.

Of the five support counsellors attending, each has his own set of skills to offer.

While they are not trained psychologists or psychiatrists, they do have formal qualifications in specific areas of men’s mental health.

Michael Leonard and Saif Al Bitar have devised a mental health retreat which acts as a rigorous workout for the mind. Pawan Singh / The National
Michael Leonard and Saif Al Bitar. Pawan Singh / The National

The weekend is fully catered with healthy, vegetarian food and alcohol is banned.

“We all carry things with us, either from former relationships with our parents, friends or partners,” said Australian Michael Leonard, 54, a qualified mental health therapist who has been in the UAE for 13 years and leads the Anyman programme.

“Men put their problems in a box and one day it just goes boom if it hasn’t been processed.

“During the course, we deal with issues that some people have been carrying for years.”

Previous attendees have revealed innermost secrets, often told for the first time, such as relationship issues with parents.

The course involves an ‘anger ceremony’ at 5.30am on Saturday where sticks and rocks are used to encourage a release of tension in a safe environment.

“One guy had a major issue during the ceremony as it triggered a repressed memory,” Mr Leonard said.

“Usually what happens is some will start talking, and that will trigger a response in others who may have had a similar experience.

“We have techniques to help people process this, but often it is the power of the group that is the biggest help.

“They are in an environment where they are not judged and everything is confidential.

“It is usually a huge cathartic release for them.”

Courses cost from Dh1,500 to Dh3,500 depending on the bed. The group also runs a shorter city retreat.

Numbers are limited to 12, with courses held monthly.

Anyman also hosts two free weekly group sessions. It aims to be accessible to all.

“We are seeing men who have had addiction or anger issues in the past, but are now prepared to deal with their problems,” said Mr Leonard.

“Sexual abuse is also a theme and causes major psychological damage. Usually men speak about it for the first time with us.

“One guy had a repressed memory that came out when he sought help to stop smoking, and his life then spiralled downwards for the next 10 years.

“He turned to us for further support and we started the rebuilding process.”

The accommodation is not flashy, but basic but functional with shared rooms. Some men sleep on only a mattress on the floor.

The farmhouse is remote and offers a chance to connect with nature, surrounded by wildlife.

“Often people will mention there is a stigma about suicide in the UAE and they do not know where to turn,” said Mr Leonard.

“It comes up often in our discussions as it is perceived as weakness.

“When men can express how they feel, that is a real strength.”

Updated: January 6, 2021 09:12 AM

Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one