Stunning views of the Sharjah Corniche.

Inayat-ur-Rahman, Enterprise Editor

Around the world, in the wake of the pandemic outbreak, as people faced a number of challenges all at once – lockdowns, bereavement, job uncertainties and a general sense of unease – mental health issues ensued. . Until then, despite decades of advocacy, mental health had remained marginal within the broader framework of health care.

The new awareness has led to multiple studies. In the United Arab Emirates, in a survey of 4,426 participants, more than 36% of respondents reported high stress from work and finances, and about 63% reported feeling helpless. These effects were particularly pronounced among young professionals and students.

In response, the UAE government and apex bodies took countermeasures, launching several wellness-focused services. The Ministry of Health and Prevention (MOHAP) launched Hayat, a mental health support programme. The Emirates Health Services (EHS) has also launched a dedicated inpatient treatment unit for the elderly. As part of the National Happiness and Wellbeing Program, a dedicated tele-counseling hotline has been launched to respond to distress calls from people with psychological problems. This decision is particularly noteworthy because it encourages people to seek help on their own accord and from their comfort zone, without inhibitions or social stigma. While supporting the general population, EHS also launched Theqa, supporting healthcare providers, who have had to go above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic.

The concerted effort has truly had an impact, as evidenced by the upbeat sentiment among UAE residents in the second half of 2021. According to HSBC’s 14th annual Expat Explorer study, the UAE ranks fourth in the world for best countries in which to live and work. 82% of expats are now optimistic that life will become more stable and normal over the next 12 months, which is significantly higher than the global average of 35%.

However, as a country that never rests on its laurels, the UAE has continued its mental wellness campaign. In fact, it’s taken it up a notch, if recent public-private partnerships are to be believed. In an industry first, Sharjah government-led Tatweer has signed a youth wellness program with EMPWR, the organization behind the region’s first mental health magazine. EMPWR is also known for its podcast and a well-moderated and anonymous social platform tailored to an Arab audience.

Wathba, the joint initiative of Sharjah Capability Development (Tatweer) and EMPWR, is a landmark in the MENA region, bearing the promise of an inclusive support system for youth empowerment and mental wellbeing.

The wellness program will be accessible across the Mena region, starting with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In the inaugural edition, EMPWR will be supported by FloraMind, an American youth mental health organization led by Forbes 1000 winner and World Economic Forum speaker Mahmoud Khedr. FloraMind and EMPWR have a region-wide partnership, enabling the implementation of their culturally relevant and clinically approved program.

Commenting on the development, Ally Salama, Founder of EMPWR, said, “Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders. Thus, their well-being and their empowerment take precedence in the transitional and tumultuous period that the world is currently going through. Partnering with a visionary like Tatweer is an ultimate validation of EMPWR’s impact in the region. We will build on the Wathba Promise, partner with more leading institutions and governing bodies, and strive to ensure sustainable development and youth wellbeing in the MENA region. Social entrepreneur, motivational speaker and former professional athlete, Ally Salama is a name synonymous with mental wellness advocacy in the region. His work through EMPWR, the “Empathy Always Wins” podcast and related activism saw him featured in Forbes 30 under 30.

The rationale for Ally’s content- and platform-driven model is to address the fundamental issues plaguing the delivery of mental health care. These include stigma towards mental illness, denial and the resulting reluctance to seek timely help. Globally, despite increased awareness of the high incidence of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, there are persistent barriers to timely health care delivery. To this end, it is important to provide individual platforms and safe spaces for people to come forward, share their experiences, ask for and offer help, and feel free from apprehension. Wathba and EMPWR’s “Empathy Always Wins” podcast serves this purpose.

MOHAP, in collaboration with the Sharjah Roads and Transport Authority, recently organized an awareness campaign for taxi drivers.

“Tatweer was invested in the power of youth. We believe it is our greatest responsibility to ensure that young people have access to support networks, resources and an environment conducive to learning. With Wathba, we aim to do this at scale, unlocking the potential of young people in the MENA region. We are pleased to partner with EMPWR led by Ally Salama, whose advocacy for mental wellbeing and youth empowerment in the region has been groundbreaking,” said Khalid Al Nakhi, Acting Director of Sharjah Capability Development (Tattweer).