Portrait of a Nation: the Irishwoman shining a light on mental health

The former maths teacher says the coronavirus pandemic is helping raise awareness of a troubling crisis

Portrait of Maria Kelly, Chairperson of Darkness into light, Abu Dhabi,UAE on 9th June 2020

THE BIO

Favourite holiday destination: Whenever I have any free time I always go back to see my family in Caltra, Galway, it’s the only place I can properly relax.

Favourite film: The Way, starring Martin Sheen. It’s about the Camino de Santiago walk from France to Spain.

Personal motto: If something’s meant for you it won’t pass you by.

As a champion of mental health, Maria Kelly is all too aware of the importance of safeguarding a person’s emotional well-being.

The committed campaigner dedicates her working life to helping people who are struggling with disorders such as depression or anxiety.

She said she believed now more than ever that dealing with mental illness should be a priority for governments, charities and wider society.

She said there had been an increase in awareness of issues around mental well-being during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There was a global mental health crisis long before this pandemic arrived,” said Ms Kelly, 31.

“However, this pandemic has certainly amplified people’s symptoms and the need for accessible support.

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It is inspiring to see this in the spotlight and I expect the coming months will bring lots of positive changes to the mental health landscape.

“It is inspiring to see this in the spotlight and I expect the coming months will bring lots of positive changes to the mental health landscape.”

Ms Kelly, from County Galway, Ireland, is head of the mental health campaign group Darkness into Light (DIL).

The organisation was first established in 2009 and later brought to the UAE in 2015.

Today, the group is well known for staging its annual night time walks throughout the Emirates.

Last year, more than 3,000 people turned out at events in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah. More than 1,700 people took part in the walk at Emirates Palace in the capital.

“Basically we gather at the darkest point of the night to remember those we have lost to suicide and those suffering in darkness in our community,” said Ms Kelly.

“Then we walk into the sunrise as a community, celebrating the wonderful support around us and the light and hope ahead of us.”

Ms Kelly gave up her full-time job as a maths teacher in Abu Dhabi last year to focus on her work with DIL.

The organisation now provides a wealth of mental health support to the community, with a specific focus on the issue of suicide.

The group is supported by a numerous volunteer mental health professionals, who can also offer counselling.

Ms Kelly said access to appropriate services was key to assisting those in need, ensuring they received the right help in good time.

“Our volunteer base is made up of mental health professionals and members of the public who want to show people there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

“We work a lot with people who have lost loved-ones and been affected by suicide. We want to help prevent that tragedy from entering another home.”

“We work together to try and provide accessible and affordable services. We offer one-on-one counselling services and support groups as well as wellbeing talks. And we work with a lot of companies here.”

Ms Kelly highlighted the sizeable population of foreigners in the UAE and said many of them lived away from their loved ones.

She said the scenario often left residents feeling more vulnerable, potentially leading to issues over anxiety.

“The UAE is made up mostly of expats, so living away from home can create a loss of connection with loved-ones,” she said.

“But the major issues here with mental health are no different than across the world.

“The majority of people we see are suffering from anxiety or depression. Many people are struggling to manage work and family life from home [because of coronavirus]. It’s a challenge for parents especially.”

She said progress towards improving mental health issues was being made, however, and that the topic was largely no longer considered a taboo.

“I believe a lot of the stigma attached to mental health has been eliminated because people are talking about it a lot more,” she said.

“The UAE government has reacted really well to the Covid-19 crisis, they’ve two hotlines for mental health. When we were starting out in 2015 that was unimaginable. It’s fantastic progress.”

THE BIO

Favourite holiday destination: Whenever I have any free time I always go back to see my family in Caltra, Galway, it’s the only place I can properly relax.

Favourite film: The Way, starring Martin Sheen. It’s about the Camino de Santiago walk from France to Spain.

Personal motto: If something’s meant for you it won’t pass you by.

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