UAE mental health specialists in demand as stigma erodes

As the stigma attached to mental health begins to erode across the country, the demand for qualified clinical psychologists and psychiatrists is on the rise, according to experts.

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ABU DHABI // As the stigma attached to mental health begins to erode across the country, the demand for qualified clinical psychologists and psychiatrists is on the rise, according to experts.

“What we are seeing is that people have embraced the idea that they can utilise the services of psychologists and psychiatrists, and feel comfortable without feeling ashamed,” said Dr Mohamed Sayed, head of clinical psychology at the National Rehabilitation Centre.

“There is some sort of degree of comfort and acceptance of the psychiatric services provided.”

Since it opened in 2002 the NRC has experienced a significant growth in the number of patients, Dr Sayed said.

It has also expanded the services it offers to adolescents, and men and women suffering from substance abuse and mental health problems.

“In the past there was no mention of women having addiction problems. Now we have a female unit fully operational and we have women who come for treatment, and that’s a big change,” Dr Sayed said. “Again, it’s all the social forces that de-stigmatised women seeking professional help in this regard.”

And although he said there was no shortage of mental health professionals, the challenge was finding highly trained staff with the necessary credentials.

“Despite the governmental effort to establish competent mental health services in the UAE, these efforts seem to be hindered by the shortage of the availability of practitioners who are professionally and culturally competent,” Dr Sayed wrote recently in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience.

“The tendency of the public to seek help from religious healers seems to contribute to the underutilisation of mental health services in UAE which, in turn, impinge on the importance of services delivery in the society.”

Dr Deema Sihweil, clinical psychologist at the Psychology Centre at the Carbone Clinic of Dubai, agreed that recruiting qualified mental health professionals to meet the needs of the population had been difficult.

“There is still a lack of highly credentialed and various speciality mental health professionals,” Dr Sihweil said. “High level psychologists with different specialities – for example, real substance abuse issues and suicide require a certain level of expertise. So we will see a decrease in the services provided because we’re getting young new graduates, inexperienced psychologists.”

In the nine years that she has been practising as a clinical psychologist in Dubai, Dr Sihweil said the influx of people from all over the world who were aware of the benefits of mental health services had helped to break down some of the stigma.

“It is getting better,” Dr Sihweil said. “Companies where people have health insurance are opening their doors to offering mental health services to their employees, because they know that it affects their production and their bottom line.

“It’s not just medical health, it’s also mental health.”

Between 20 and 30 per cent of her patients were either Emiratis or Gulf nationals who sought non-Arab or non-Muslim mental health practitioners “because they feel that the stigma and the judgment will be far reduced if they see a western psychologist”.

Dr Sayed said: “I know there are some issues and some people still do not believe in the medical tradition of healing, because of the deep-rooted assumptions about mental health issues and mental disorders. I can attest to that – what I’m saying is that this is changing.”