Mental illness is still a taboo subject in Oman, with many people suffering in silence. A new campaign aims to change that by getting those affected to speak out, report Kate Ginn and Deeba Hasan
In a restaurant in Muscat at the end of last month, three people took an incredibly brave step. Standing up in front of a small audience, they spoke openly for the first time about how their lives had been touched by mental illness. They were very personal stories told simply without the aid of prompts, notes or PowerPoint. These were words straight from the heart.
Two women and one man told of their individual journeys to recovery, acceptance and the battle to get well.
The unique night was the first of its kind in the Sultanate, with people speaking openly and publicly about how mental illness has affected their lives, either directly or through family members. It should be the first of many.
The evening was part of a campaign called “Not Alone”, launched by the Whispers of Serenity Clinic in Muscat to create awareness about mental diseases and support patients and their families.
Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are often still stigmatised in Oman, a country that is slowly showing cultural acceptance of something that was previously kept behind closed doors.
“I think that there is a taboo when it comes to speaking of mental illnesses and it’s not only in this part of the world, it’s a global thing. I do agree that there is more awareness in the west, but the taboo remains everywhere. We are missing out the awareness bit here,” says Sayyida Basma Al Said, founder of Whispers of Serenity and a mental health counsellor and psychotherapist.
The figures available show it is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Doctors at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) Hospital revealed in 2009 that they diagnosed 2,200 women with depression, an increase of more than 20 per cent on the previous year. In May last year, a study conducted on students by the Department of Behavioural Medicine at SQU showed that 27 per cent had depression of varying grades. Another study investigating the rate of depression among secondary school students in Oman found that 17 per cent of the respondents showed symptoms.
Whispers of Serenity is working on its own study and the results should be revealed later this year.
More events encouraging people affected by mental illness in Oman to speak out as part of the “Not Alone” initiative will be held next month and in May, which is officially Mental Health Month.
“We want to spread awareness from the ‘Not Alone’ stories. We want to say that if you are hurt or are suffering, you are not the only one and that there are other people going through it,” says Sayyida Basma.
“We want to tell them that there is help available.”
Here, we let the three participants in the first “Not Alone” event tell their stories in their own words:
Manasik Sharaf, 34, a marketing officer with Renna Mobile, talks about her struggle with anxiety and depression, and her battle to regain her life
“Looking at me, people would not know that I suffered from mental illness. I am no different from anyone else.
In 2009 I had it all: a job I loved with Bank Muscat; my daughter, who I’d adopted the year before when she was one; and an active life. I was into sports and going trekking in the mountains at the weekends. I was a high achiever in my workplace and in my personal life.
I started at Bank Muscat as a processor and worked my way up to assistant manager. I was the ideas person; people would come to me for creativity. I had bought a house and had a maid for my daughter. The three of us were settled. I was independent.
Anxiety ran in the family – my brother had it and so did my mother. I had my first panic attack in 1997 when I was in high school. I was just watching TV and suddenly I was outside the house on the floor and it was dark and I was crying and screaming.
I used to get one panic attack in a week, but it wasn’t affecting my life, so I just lived with it. I used to get the blues, when I would feel sad for no reason, and I was okay with that. Being a bit sad helped me in my art (I’m a digital artist, too) and I expressed how I felt in my pieces.
My mum passed away in 2007. She was 67. She had been ill, but it still came as a shock. I was living with her at the time so it was a big change. She was the one I relied on and then she wasn’t there anymore. It was a challenge, but I wanted to prove to my brothers that I could cope.
In 2011, things started to slide. I begin getting symptoms such as heart palpitations and breathing problems. I thought it was my heart and I went to hospital several times, but it wasn’t physical. It was my anxiety and slowly, it was starting to build. By 2012, I was having five panic attacks a day. I would become disorientated for three or four hours and I couldn’t focus.
Then in that year  my brother died. He was a diabetic and suffered from severe anxiety. I couldn’t really get over the fact that he was gone. Whenever I got a panic attack, he was the one I would call.
In 2012, I was diagnosed as having hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland), which can cause depression and weight gain. In late 2012, my panic attacks and anxiety got even worse and I wasn’t getting any help. I put on so much weight and became an insomniac. I wouldn’t sleep for two days and then I’d collapse and sleep for the next two. I would hear this humming and a woman’s voice screaming inside my head, along with terrible nightmares, which felt so real.
I wanted it to all end. My daughter, Zainab, who is seven-and-a-half now, was the only thing that kept me going. Each time I felt bad I would go to her and give her a hug. The most important thing for me was, and still is, my daughter. Every smile that I forced was for her. I lost touch with my friends and some of my family, but my daughter’s love was constant. I think she knew and she tried to help as much as possible. When I had a panic attack, I would go outside for fresh air. She would come out with a glass of water and ask, ‘Are you okay?’
I took two months off work and when I returned, they said I needed to move to another department. It felt like I was losing my career and that everything was closing in on me. My doctor was giving me long leaves and one day my manager said they simply couldn’t tolerate it anymore. I resigned in April 2014 and was devastated. I’d been with Bank Muscat for 12 years. I loved it and it was my second home. Everyone at the bank was my friend; we grew up together. I didn’t fight for it, I was a quitter. I had been defeated.
After that, my daughter became my only purpose in life. I developed social anxiety and couldn’t go out. I just sat at home and my sister would come and take my daughter out.
Sometimes you get attached to your pain and loneliness. You sink and you can’t get out, but you don’t want to because you feel comfortable.
In June last year, I began taking medication for my thyroid problem, depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Within a short space of time, I began to feel better and in October 2014, I got a new job. When I have a panic attack now I can really control it and I got over the social anxiety.
It’s very hard reaching out to people. You are tagged as this ‘crazy person’ and people deal with you differently. They are cautious and don’t want their family or children to be near you. They don’t understand that it is an illness like any other. With mental illness, people can’t see or feel what you do.
I was really nervous talking at the ‘Not Alone’ event, but it was a relief to finally share my story. I had kept it in so long. Some of my friends were in the audience and they heard my story for the first time.
We have to speak out. Our generation has to come forward and talk about it freely. We don’t have to be like our fathers and mothers who suffered in silence. I want to help others to come forward, I want to tell them that they don’t have to be ashamed of the way they feel and I want to help change people’s mindsets.
I am better than I was, but there is still a long way to go. I’m not sure what will happen with my illness in the future, but I am going to fight it by reaching out and seeking help. I still have my daily battles, but there is no way that I am ever going back to how I was before.”
Mohammed al Lawati, 28, a full-time psychologist at the Ministry of Social Development and part-time at the Whispers of Serenity Clinic, went through a difficult time in his teenage years, which led to a dependence on drugs
“I was a regular kid when I was little, I grew up with three sisters and we lived with our parents.
As I got older, I became more rebellious. My family was very protective of me and showed concern. They didn’t want me to fall into bad ways. I was around 13 or 14 when things gathered momentum and I started hanging out with the wrong people. The reason I started rebelling was not only because of my parents, it was because I was getting bullied at school. I was very short and thin. People called me names like ‘dwarf’ or ‘shorty’, very hurtful things. When you can’t fight back, people think you are weak.
As a child, you need someone to talk to and explain that it’s not your fault and that you are good. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anybody to talk to. My mother was under a lot of pressure, she was working and raising kids and also going through personal problems and my dad was very busy. They come from a generation who didn’t know how to talk to their kids. I see this a lot in my day-to-day work, my generation is full of people with similar experiences.
When I was growing up, it was like being a jungle; you had to fight to survive. I didn’t have brothers, only sisters and no cousins my age and so I started hanging out with people who others saw as ‘bad’.
One thing led to another and I got into drugs. When I was in high school I smoked hashish because someone told me to. I actually threw up the first time and shouldn’t have tried it again, but I liked the way it made me feel. I’d recently gone through a relationship break-up and I was upset with the way my life was going. I couldn’t maintain a relationship because I was insecure. I was worried she would leave me, so I became very obsessive.
There were a lot of issues even before I picked up hashish. It’s a scientifically proven fact that an addiction or substance dependency is a psychological disorder. It’s not about what society thinks; it’s what science says. It was a very difficult time in my life, I felt like I’d lost myself. I also started to take heroin.
I took up drugs because I felt low about myself and there was nobody I could talk to. There was a time when I thought there was no point in living a life like that and thought of ending it all. I remember having a car accident as a result of those feelings, it was almost like a suicide attempt, as I was driving very dangerously on the roads.
My sister started to suspect my drug use because when I came home, my eyes would often be red and I’d look tired. She started to search my room and one day she found the substances that I took.
She told my parents and they were both very disappointed. I remember my mother crying and I was hit twice. I told my parents I was taking drugs because I was depressed, which made them feel helpless too.
The turning point was in 2008. I realised that this was not the life I wanted and asked my father for help after I saw an advert about rehab in Jordan. I went there, but unfortunately the centre didn’t have the facilities to treat people like me. They gave me a lot of medicine, but when I returned to Oman, I went back to using drugs.
I went to another rehab centre in India for one year and this was much better. They advised people and treated them psychologically because if you do not teach people how to deal with life without drugs, they’re not going to improve.
I have now been clean since February 3, 2010. I even stopped smoking three years back and haven’t touched anything since.
In every family, there is someone who has problems with addiction or some sort of compulsive behaviour and it’s not just in Oman; it’s worldwide. It’s the main cause of many other illnesses and a very serious thing, so it’s important to speak of it openly. I couldn’t do this earlier because I wasn’t confident enough, but after five years I feel like I am in a position where I understand why I was doing all this.
My advice is instead of lecturing someone who has a problem or judging him or her, why don’t you try embracing them and showing some care? If you are not qualified to give advice, then you shouldn’t lecture people because that only makes it worse. They are not happy doing what they are doing and if you have nothing to offer, pray for them or just embrace them.”
Helen Sayers, director & trainer at Oasis Life-Skills Training Services, talks about how mental illness touched her family and her journey to overcome grief
“Losing my closest brother 14 years ago was one of the toughest moments of my life. Stephen was different from his five boisterous older brothers – he had severe learning difficulties, was bullied as a young boy and his gentle, vulnerable nature made it especially hard for him to face the challenges of adulthood. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20s. The years that followed were difficult ones not only for Stephen, but also for our whole family and especially my parents. I spent as much time as I could with him, visiting him during his many long spells in hospital psychiatric wards, but after a while my work took me away from the family home on the island of Jersey, part of the UK, and I left for London.
I clearly remember the day when a friend called me saying she thought that Stephen was about to commit suicide and asked me to spend some time with him. There were no flights available and I felt desperate. I shared my concern with a friend, who asked me if I had tried sending thoughts of love to my brother. That night I sat alone silently in my room and imagined that Stephen was there with me and that I was talking to him, telling him he would be fine. I was totally focused as I spoke, and had a powerful feeling, as if he was really there and was hearing me. After a few minutes I stopped, felt very peaceful and went to sleep. The next morning Stephen phoned me. ‘Hi, Helen, thanks for your prayers, I feel really great today,’ he said. I was amazed. Later that day, my mother called me to say that Stephen had told her that he had heard Helen praying for him. For me, this was a wonderful confirmation of the reality of soul-to-soul communication and the power of thought.
The years went by and Stephen steadily managed to cope with his illness, made many friends and loved to make others happy through his generous nature and great sense of humour. I learned many things through our interactions and through conversations with other mentally challenged people whom I would meet when visiting Stephen. They told me about their feelings and many talked about spirituality. It was during this time that I started my own personal search for inner peace and I took up meditation.
Then one day, my father called me to say that Stephen had passed away. I was devastated. Our family came together and we tried to cope with our grief in different ways. By now, I was convinced in the existence of the soul – that it was the body that had died and the soul had passed on to the next chapter in life’s journey. This understanding helped me to reassure and console my family, to help them to come to terms with what had happened. The church where the funeral was held was packed. His family, friends, doctors, nurses – hundreds – had come to say goodbye to the ‘gentle giant’ who had brought happiness to so many people.
A week after the funeral, I decided that I no longer needed to grieve, that Stephen’s soul had moved on and was probably very happy. I opened up my computer and saw a notice saying that there was a printing job waiting. I hadn’t given the order for anything to print, but slowly a white sheet of paper curled out of the printer. I picked it up and saw a tiny heart at the top left corner of an otherwise blank page. My heart leapt. I turned around and the bright morning light was streaming through the window.
Was this Stephen’s parting message to me? Was this Stephen praying for me? Was this the telepathy of our eternal relationship?
I thank Stephen for playing such an important role in my life – for being a special and wise soul who taught me things that I never learned at school.
When I look at children, I feel that I am communicating with the soul. Sometimes that soul seems much wiser than the young body it is contained in, and I often remember my brother.”
Where to get help:
To get across the message that mental illness can affect any one of us, Whispers of Serenity released a video in November last year to launch the ‘Not Alone’ or ‘Nahnu Maak’ (We are with you) campaign. Featuring members of the Royal family, actors, media professionals, artists and students, it was screened at cinemas across Oman.
To view the video, click here.