Sharing your darkest moments can be a daunting prospect for anyone, and for GCC royalty it’s almost unheard of.
Kuwaiti Sheikha Majda Jaber Hamoud Al-Sabah made headlines when she shared her experience of debilitating depression with the world, and now she’s on a mission to destigmatize mental health across the region.
“My aim is that people recognize that they are not alone if they need help, support and advice,” she tells Livehealthy. “We will continue to find new ways to support and new channels to reach out to people who are facing mental health challenges.”
The first of these new channels is Houna, a digital platform that aims to support those suffering from mental health issues while raising awareness and encouraging open conversation. Accessible to people of all ages, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds in the Middle East, the platform provides information related to mental health disorders, symptoms and treatments as well directing users towards educational resources and a directory of licensed therapists.
Recently, the Global Burden of Disease estimated that 15 percent of the regional population suffers from mental disorders, yet 75 percent of those who do never seek help. For Sheika Majda, one of the key problems facing the region is a lack of Arabic information, something that Houna intends to address.
“No one is immune to changes in mood, fears or mental health challenges and currently there is a lack of Arabic resources around mental health,” says the philanthropist and advocate.
“I believe that all people deserve to have access to information, support and resources to overcome difficulties, reach their full potential and live a healthy, holistic lifestyle.”
For Sheika Majda, old cultural stereotypes are one of the main barriers to progress. And the entrepreneur understands the struggle better than most.
“It all started following my battle with depression after my father had a stroke,” she says. “I tried to do some research and speak to my family about what I was going through, but then I realized that there wasn’t only lack of awareness around mental illness, but most people also refused to talk about it because of the stigma that was imposed by our societies.
“I took it upon myself to help people facing mental health challenges and provide them with the help they need. I wanted to let people know that with Houna, they are not alone.”
Stigma towards mental illness is not only a barrier to speaking out in the GCC but also to accessing mental health care, whether because of misconceptions of diagnoses or the limitations imposed by societal beliefs.
A survey conducted with 1,000 participants in the UAE found approximately 30 percent of participants were reluctant to seek help due to the fear of being judged by employers and harming their career progression.
Ironically, untreated mental illness is costing the GCC $3.5 billion due to severe productivity loss, according to the PwC.
In Sheikha Majda’s view, there has been recent progress in the region, but a lot of work still needs to be done in changing the narrative.
“Through Houna we are creating a community where people accept and support each other,” she says. “Our mission is for Houna to be the oasis of knowledge, support, guidance and engagement for people dealing with mental health issues and challenges. I can see progress in destigmatizing mental health in our region since we started our awareness journey a few years ago, and we will never stop.”
Emma Pearson is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist with an ever-rumbling belly and permanently itchy feet. Currently based in Dubai, Emma lived and worked across the UK and US before settling in the UAE five years ago. Favourite country: Vietnam. Favourite food: crisps. Favourite writing topics: fitness, feasts and far-flung lands.