Majlis Mohamed bin Zayed hosts lecture on ‘Improving Mental Health’

ABU DHABI, An estimated 615 million people worldwide suffer from depression and anxiety – the two most common mental health conditions, Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, clinical psychologist and professor at Kuwait University’s Faculty of Medicine, told a lecture hosted by the Majlis Mohamed bin Zayed.

The lecture, titled Improving Mental Health, was held at the Emirates Palace on Wednesday and was attended by Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Hamed, Chairman of the Department of Health Abu Dhabi, as well as several officials.

The stigma surrounding the condition is a significant barrier to the treatment of mental health issues globally, but especially so in this region, Dr Al-Mutawa, the founder of Kuwait’s Soor Centre, which is working to remove such stigmas, said. The stigma around mental illness can lead to a reluctance to seek help, fewer work opportunities, rejection by family and society, as well as bullying and harassment, said Dr Al-Mutawa, who is licensed to practise in four countries, including the US and UAE. A recent YouGov poll revealed that more than four per cent of UAE’s population is clinically depressed, with fewer than half the respondents saying they would seek professional help if they were suffering from a psychological disorder.

Mental health issues are becoming widespread and are significantly impacting the global economy, with no country able to tackle the problem effectively. Depression and anxiety costs the global economy an estimated US$1 trillion in lost productivity each year, a recent World Health Organization study says. If the challenge is not properly addressed, mental health issues could cost the global economy US$16 trillion by 2030.

Stress and negative thinking are rapidly becoming an integral part of modern-day life with psychological problems and ailments becoming more frequent worldwide, Dr Al-Mutawa said. Painting a grim picture, Dr Al-Mutawa presented a slide showing that 75 per cent of all mental illnesses worldwide start before the age of 24, with half appearing before the age of 14. Youth in the Gulf suffer similar levels of depression as their counterparts in the West, but those in Arab countries who have recently experienced armed conflict tend to be more deeply affected.

Depression and stress can be effectively treated, in most instances, through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) Dr Al-Mutawa says. CBT is a form of talk therapy that helps patients identify the unhealthy thoughts and beliefs behind their negative reactions which may be triggered by a variety of stressful situations, so as to transform them into healthier and more positive thoughts. He added that cognitive strategies can provide anyone the tools to cope and to learn how to think rather than what to think. The strategies can help people control their own behaviour by leveraging their inner speech to modify their underlying thinking and, consequently, the way they behave.

Explaining further Dr Al-Mutawa, a UNESCO award-wining author, said CBT aims to improve the mental health of a person suffering. It focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful cognitive distortions and behaviors, improving emotional regulation, and the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current problems. If you are angry, depressed or anxious, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and you are in fight or flight mode, he explained. Neither is helpful. So the idea is to increase the options somehow.

Dr Al-Mutawa said it was important to find the emotional solution to a problem that one may be facing. To be able to deal with life’s challenges, we need to reframe them, and select healthy terminology instead of unhealthy. For example, one can change your definition of ‘depression’ to ‘sadness’; change ‘guilt’ to ‘remorse’. The clinical psychologist said the only thing we ever have control over is our thoughts, so CBT helps people to realistically assess what they can and cannot change. He defined this as a “self-educative approach” to help people put problems into perspective, through the teaching of emotional and behavioral control. By understanding the truth of the situation and learning to differentiate one’s emotional response from the facts, CBT can actually help people “get better” rather than “feel better”.

The psychologist defined “getting better” as not being about people avoiding a traumatic situation, but about learning to respond in a healthier and less negative way to the same situation. “We need to take responsibility for our own emotions,” he said, referencing the “100% Test” which challenges whether 100 people would all feel the same way in the same situation. The answer is probably not. “So what are we adding to our experience to differentiate it from others?” he asked Dr Al-Mutawa then put forward an alphabetised classification of the methodology for using CBT, comprising A to F, wherein A represents the activating event, B the rational or irrational beliefs held about A), C, representing the emotional and behavioral consequences and D – disputing and challenging of irrational beliefs. We eventually reach the stage of E (effective new thoughts), and F – effective new feelings.

In conclusion, Dr Al-Mutawa provided takeaways that can be implemented and used to self-analyze. The key, he said, was to reframing our thoughts and using CBT to truly identify irrational thoughts such as ‘demandingness’, defining ourselves rather than our behaviors ‘awfulizing / catastrophizing’ and ‘frustration intolerance’, which is often verbalized as “I can’t stand it” or “I can’t take it any more”. We must learn how to dispute irrational beliefs, asking for evidence or proof of the belief and ask ourselves how this belief is helping us and to how logical it is for us to think this way. It is critical to then progress to new rational beliefs.

Source: Emirates News Agency