Navigating Cultural Norms in Mental Health

May 1, 2024 thehrobserver-hrobserver-mentalhealth

Mental health has long been a taboo, where people thought that discussing their challenges would put them in a vulnerable place. Certain cultures looked at mental health as a ‘contagious’ disease that would spread further if people spoke about it.

But here is the deal, recent studies confirm that failure to recognise mental health issues in the UAE is not a large outlier in comparison to other countries. This perception may be based on old stereotypes or inaccurate reporting in some media. To add to the complexity, the UAE has a diverse population with a high percentage of expatriate workers. This ‘cultural melting pot’ brings together people with different perceptions of mental health issues – which is often a challenge for employers.

What has led to the shift in perceptions?

Overall, perceptions have been influenced by the communication of information, which dispels rumors and other related concerns. As we see information on it practically every day, it has started to be thought of in the same way that physical impairments are. It is also positive to see how promotional and prevention resources are targeted at different groups, reflecting different uses of language and preferences for asking for help. For example, access to an app in comparison to face-to-face meetings.

A sign of the importance of this issue is that supporting mental health has been identified as a national priority for the UAE. In addition, to proactively advertising resources to support good mental health, the policy stresses the need for multi-sectoral collaborations, improving the supporting infrastructure and undertaking research. Issues that generate policies at the national level provide a powerful message and may encourage more organisations to support the agenda. 

In current times, there is a far wider appreciation that having good mental health benefits families, employees, organisations, and society. Through the wider and more public discussions around achieving positive mental health, it seems that the negative perceptions are decreasing. This agenda is now discussed with the younger members of society who don’t have any preconceptions or understand history. 

What more can be done?

Promoting the benefits of good mental health is powerful and can encourage people to take proactive steps in support of this. We must, however, acknowledge the other end of the continuum, ensuring that accurate and supporting information is available to people who are having mental health difficulties. It is also useful if there is information for different stakeholders, e.g. family, friends, and colleagues, so that they can develop their understanding and add their support.

Schools can provide age-appropriate activities and information to encourage students to adopt a healthy lifestyle. In addition to providing benefits now and in the future, students can be catalysts for change on their own.

Organisations could take a holistic approach to well-being due to the recognised benefits that can be gained from activities such as healthy eating or access to leisure facilities. A combination of prevention and promotion should be considered.  

Those organisations that do not have people who can provide medical advice can promote specialist organisations. Whilst there is a financial cost to providing additional facilities, the cost vs the benefit usually provides a clear argument. For example, through reduced sickness absence, turnover, etc.

Whilst acknowledging the improvements to date, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t more that could be done to promote good mental health. There is still a perception around certain conditions, such as anxiety and depression, where there may still be a stigma attached. 

This is not an issue that is confined to the UAE, with all countries and cultures facing some challenges. It is, therefore, particularly helpful if supporting resources could be provided in different formats, for example, through the use of websites or podcasts, as many people may be reticent about going straight to a doctor.

Professor Fiona Robson

Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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