Here’s How Oman Is Tackling Mental Health Disorders Among The Youth

01 Sep 2019
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

The road to recovery begins with recognising a problem. And, as the rates of youth diagnosed with depression and other mental health disorders in the nation rise, we look at what’s causing this spike and how we can foster a community that’s ever-accepting of those fighting for their basic right – the right to remain happy.

Emotions form the core of a human being.

Being able to distinguish between good and bad, forming opinions, and justifying reality are just some of the prerequisites of the human body’s most complex functioning organ: our brain.

And while emotions can be quintessential to co-exist in society, they can also pull you back – and, in some cases, cause severe life-altering trauma in the form of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety that can be a matter of life and death.

Just ask Sophie* (name changed to protect identity), a 24-year-old expat student in Oman, who was a victim of depression.

“You can fight this battle (depression) alone all you want, but just like everything on Earth, depression will cause you to put an expiration date on emotions, your struggles, and eventually, your life.

It’s been two years since she’s come out of her fight with depression – but she reveals that it had been the toughest time of her life.

“Remembering those days triggers a sense of anxiety in me even now. I still remember the day when I hit my first low point in my life.

She recalls: “It was on the day my grade 12 results were published by the school. I had underperformed miserably and managed to get called out by several family members on how I had let my parents down.

“I know it sounds very silly now. But back then, this was deemed the only purpose of my education – all those years of schooling and I had failed the only people I love. I couldn’t even face them.

“Those around me were very hurtful and manipulative. Imagine a 16-year-old Indian girl being told by her uncle how ‘ashamed’ he was of her,” she adds, as the emotions in her voice clearly permeate through our conversation.

Sophie’s life spiraled following this. Constant judgement from family members meant she stopped socialising with them. She says that she also gave up on her friends and began self-harming to ‘punish’ herself.

Her actions are in line with how the American Psychiatric Association defines depression.

All photos for illustrative purposes only. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

The health organisation defines it as a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, think, and act. Depression has been associated with feelings of sadness, violence, anger, and a loss of interest in activities that a person once enjoyed.

“There comes a point when the marks on your hands and legs are visible to everyone, and only then did my parents realise what was going on. Even I didn’t know what depression was.

“All I knew was that I was taking every chance to harm myself. For the first time, pain became a great healer; a healer of my emotions at that moment.”

By the age of 17, she was already on the influence of anti-depressants and was undergoing counselling – but has since recovered from her past traumas. Her therapy took nearly four years to complete.

In reality, however, Sophie is only one among many youths who are suffering from depression and other forms of mental illness.

While details are sparingly available in Oman, worldwide statistics of patients – as per the World Health Organisation (WHO) – stand at a staggering 433 million, of which 300 million suffer from depression and anxiety.

That’s nearly 65 times the population of the Sultanate!

More worryingly, WHO also estimates that of children between the ages of 10 and 19 who suffer from disease and injury, nearly 16 per cent of them suffer from mental health problems.

Aisha al Barwani, a clinical psychologist and certified life coach, is among those who are tackling the issue here in Oman.

She says: “Mental health conditions such as depression have become one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents around the world.

“And what’s more important is that the numbers are increasing… and fast.”

Globally, depression is the ninth leading cause of illness and disability among all adolescents, while anxiety takes the eighth spot.

Speaking about the reasons for this, Aisha tells us: “A great part of why children – pre-teens and teens – undergo depression is due to bullying in school, peer pressure, pressures from the educational system, and even the family.

“Each of those matters have an importance of its own and must be tackled individually –though issues such as bullying can lead to both physical and mental trauma that must be resolved immediately.”

As per Aisha, it’s vital for parents and teachers in schools to keep a close eye on children – especially if they’re showing signs of depression or anxiety.

This is also a thought shared by Dr. Amira al Raaidan, Director for Health Education and Awareness Programs, and Head of the Mental Health Department in the Ministry of Health.

She explains: “Signs of depression in children can range from bed-wetting, biting nails, [to] aggression. In addition to that, children with emotional disorders can also experience excessive irritability or anger.

“The issue is when symptoms can overlap – meaning, it can go unnoticed with other behavioural problems. In such situations, it’s important for parents to connect with their child.

But, over the course of our research, we learn that sometimes the very individuals who help shape a child’s future are the ones that destroy it.

As Deepali Kumar, a former student of an Indian school in Oman, puts it in an interview with Y: “As a little child, I loved school. But growing up, I was bullied into hating the institution that was meant to help me grow.”

She was deemed by her teachers as being ‘slow.’ This also led to her being shamed by her peers of 40-odd students.

“I blame my teachers for what I underwent in school.

“I only broke away from this when I left school for university. I realised that college was where I could be myself and excel.”

Deepali has since transformed her life; she’s now a successful Yogic philosophic teacher who also strongly supports impressing the youth of today of the strong values of love.

She’s also a survivor of bullying and mental harassment. But, as Dr. Amira says, not all may be lucky enough to move on from childhood traumas.

“You’re not alone,” she says. “We’re all here to help and there are clinics across Oman that can help you deal with your troubles. There’s no shame in coming forward to get treatment.

“Anyone who thinks they’re undergoing depression should consult a doctor. It’s a very dangerous condition that needs to be treated on-time, else it can progress into something far more serious.

“One should also remember that depression is treatable if diagnosed at the right time,” she explains, before adding that by the year 2020, depression will take over as one of the biggest forms of mental illness.

As per Dr. Amira, mental illnesses can worsen over time if left untreated.

“The first step to a cure is in accepting or diagnosing the situation. From there, things will become much, much better,” she adds.

Furthermore, Aisha al Barwani notes that more children and families are now coming forward to treat illnesses than ever before.

“It’s amazing how youth have a stronger voice in Oman than many other countries. This can be attributed to the efforts of His Majesty, who has put children’s rights on top, thereby allowing everyone to express themselves.

“The system is now working hard to treat those who come forward and want to speak about and treat their condition.

“But, yes, the system is only a part of the process. Human interaction forms the rest, and that means it’s still up to individuals – from the parents to the children – to treat this matter with utmost care.

“Educating people is key, and only then will we be able to see a change for the better,” she adds.

Perhaps this is what Sayyida Basma al Said, the founder of the Whispers of Serenity Clinic, in Oman is advocating with their ‘Young Minds’ campaign.

Essentially a mental health forum, it aims to collaborate with their ‘#NotAlone’ initiative, but with a focus on the youth of the country and will be held this October.

At the press conference for the announcement of the event, Sayyida Basma was quoted as saying: “The forum aims at enhancing knowledge and awareness among youth on a variety of topics linked with child and adolescent health.

“We are also giving a major platform to these youngsters to express themselves and discuss issues related to their mental and physical health and safety at an informal and friendly platform.

“Our team has put in immense efforts in making this event a possibility and we will be happy to get the support and encouragement from the public who we hope will attend and benefit from the productive speeches and discussions.”

This goes in line with a previous interview with Sayyida Basma, in which she raised the importance of having an informal and friendly platform for people to share their thoughts with one another while receiving support and love from everyone.

The forum will also feature speeches from youth, panel discussions with experts, and workshops focusing on tackling bullying, promoting positive self-character, anger management, and more.

The event is free to attend for children, though adults will need to buy a ticket worth RO25.

Talking about the initiative is Abdelrahman* (name changed to protect identity), parent of two children ages 12 and 8, who was also a victim of bullying at school. Expressing his thoughts, he says: “No amount of money can ever put a price on mental health. This was stripped off me back in school in Egypt, and I only found myself after moving back to Oman.

“Back then, there were social stigmas associated with this. Families would brush this under the table and ask for their children to deal with it on their own.

“Moreover, if you did receive psychiatric attention, it was kept a secret. Sadly, those with mental health illnesses were often believed to be locked up in asylums or kept in hospitals – but families didn’t know better back then.

“Times are changing quickly, and this mindset is slowly being eradicated from our society. But for it to completely lose its stereotypes and gain public knowledge, we need the youth to come forward and talk about their problems – that’s why we’re in need of forums such as  ‘Young Minds’ to take over and change the perception of looking after one’s mental health.

“I pray to live in a time where mental health can be discussed in a professional manner with no stigma – not even a little bit – attached to it.

“That’s the dream – a depression-free world that focuses on each other’s mental health. If such a thing can ever exist.”

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