Two young doctors want to make mental-health education available to those that they believe need it most – young children and teenagers. To do this, Ayesha Khan and Zaki Emad, who are currently medical trainees, founded Kayan Mental Health to offer mental health education sessions for students.
The name “Kayan,” which means “to be complete or fulfilled” in Arabic, comes from Khan and Emad’s commitment to a holistic view of health.
“Good mental health is somebody’s ability to be complete and fulfilled,” says Emad.
The idea for Kayan came from Khan’s experience with patients during her clinical training years at Ras Al Khaimah Health and Medical School. While her patients knew when to seek help for physical health problems, many either were reluctant or didn’t know how to seek help for anxiety, stress and other mental health issues.
A study on anxiety-related issues among adolescents in the UAE, published in BMC Pediatrics in May 2020, found that the majority of mental disorders in the country begin before the age of 14.
Khan believes education plays an important role in the ability of patients to address their mental health, but that it currently “focuses on physical health and I want to support mental and emotional health as well.”
Although Khan had the germ of an idea for what eventually became Kayan by her second year of medical school, she still couldn’t envision a structure. That began to crystalize in her third year, when she met Emad on the Community Medicine Public Health course and began sharing her thoughts with him.
As it turned out, Emad also cared deeply about the same issues. Growing up, he saw the effects of a lack of mental-health education in schools. One of his friends in high school labored under mental illness, and though he had the courage to seek help, he nonetheless suffered from stigma and alienation from his peers and family.
“Blame is attached to mental health, and without the intervention of knowledge and education, the person believes there is something wrong with them personally.”
The problem is only getting worse: BMC Pediatrics found that the overall prevalence of anxiety disorders among UAE school children between the ages of 13 and 8 was 28 percent.
Marked by his high school friend’s experience, Emad saw in Khan’s idea an opportunity to change the narrative around getting help.
“The Kayan curriculum leans on discussion and interactivity,” she says.
This is done through 40-minute to hour-long sessions spent in discussing and defining mental health and debunking myths. Being students themselves when they first developed the curriculum helped, particularly in realizing that long lectures don’t work.
More than that, Khan believes that “discussion creates a safe, non-judgmental space for questions,” something which they found was missing for the students they encounter.
Bitty Devasia is school counselor at the Indian Public School in Ras Al Khaimah, where Kayan held sessions.
“The Kayan Mental Health sessions are very informative,” she says. “The kids love the class and Zaki and Ayesha are very knowledgeable.”
While the mission of Kayan is to increase student awareness, “a big barrier is awareness among parents”, said Emad. “There is a chronic lack of information. There is awareness around diabetes, but not enough awareness around mental health. People still feel that it is a very mysterious thing to deal with and don’t understand the origins of mental illness.”
The UAE government is addressing alarming mental health statistics with new initiatives. In 2020, the Ministry of Health and Prevention established a free dedicated hotline (8004673) to respond to those dealing with psychological concerns and anxiety.
Suicide and self-harm were decriminalized in the country last November, with punitive measures replaced by referrals for mental health treatment.
Also last year, Kayan received a School Grant from the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research. Grants from the program of up to Dh10,000 are awarded to projects that seek to improve student experience in Ras Al Khaimah.
Khan and Emad used their grant to enroll in a course on mental health first aid for adolescents by Lighthouse Arabia. Training focused on how to identify, understand and respond to young people struggling with mental health problems.
The remainder went toward printing supplementary materials that go with the discussion-based curriculum.
Like most other in-person initiatives, Kayan was forced by the Covid-19 pandemic to move online, which it did with the help of a growing team of volunteers.
Currently, Kayan Mental Health sessions are offered only in English, but an Arabic curriculum is in the final stages of preparation.
• If your school is interested in Kayan’s mental-health course, information and access is provided via the website.
Alexa Mena is a multidisciplinary artist and media editor for livehealthy.ae. When she's not writing for livehealthy, she's thinking about design and how it shapes the human experience.