Why mental healthcare in the UAE needs to be formalised, more accessible

Licensing bodies must engage with residents through a public-facing website to provide necessary information
Why mental healthcare in the UAE needs to be formalised, more accessible
As more people openly seek counseling, a more robust and formalized mental health system needs to be ready to handle the growing demand

Untreated mental health issues cost the UAE around $3.5 billion in lost productivity each year due to the mental health system being in its infancy. Approximately 15 percent of the Gulf population experiences mental health challenges, yet most of it is untreated.

While this statistic may be underestimated due to the stigma associated with mental illness, UAE residents are experiencing a shift. They are utilizing both inpatient and outpatient mental health services, indicating that counseling services are being formally recognized and embraced.

As demand for mental health services like counseling by psychologists and social workers is rising, the mental health system needs to be ready to meet this demand.

Through Zayed University’s social innovation grant, experts at the institute are working to better understand the mental healthcare system in the UAE. Research has shown that the UAE is at a point where it has the opportunity to better meet the mental health needs of its residents, but it requires an accessible system to do so. One of the primary findings of the study is that there is a need for formalizing mental healthcare to promote accessibility for service recipients.

Varying systems

Each emirate within the UAE has its own system of licensing psychologists, counselors and social workers. In Abu Dhabi, the Department of Community Development (DCD) licenses non-clinical psychologists, counselors, psychotherapists and social workers (along with applied behavior analysts) under the title of ‘Social Care Professionals’, with varying educational requirements for each designation along with nationality (i.e., Emirati nationals or expatriates).

Similarly, the Community Development Authority (CDA) has its own system of licensure for what they call ‘Social Professionals’, such as social workers, social therapists, psychologists, social guides and special education teachers, which groups professions in the spaces of mental health, disability and education. People within the CDA’s designation of ‘Social Professionals’ also possess varying levels of education. For the average person, the process of understanding new labels and categorizations may pose a barrier to seeking out help. While it is acceptable to have different systems, it is less clear as to why the systems vary or why such varied professionals are categorized together when such differences are not necessarily evident within the mainstream healthcare system.

Challenges with seeking out help are compounded when looking for a licensed social professional. While the DCD and CDA publish publicly available lists of licensed individuals (with only their full name and license number), finding these individuals through internet searches is sometimes impossible. Social professionals working at organizations with websites that list their team members can be easily found, but they are in the minority.

Making the search easier

During their research, Zayed University experts also realised that all social professionals did not have a strong online presence, implying that people would have to rely on the limited number of organizations that have built a reputation for providing mental health services, but these organizations may be inaccessible to some due to their pricing. Others may use online services from their home country or services from those who may not be licensed.

To better serve the needs of UAE residents, licensing bodies should engage with residents through a public-facing website providing accessible information. It may be beneficial to utilize systems that currently exist, such as TAMM’s Find a Medical Professional webpage.

Mental healthcare is complicated, particularly when layering the diverse cultures and a changing social landscape with factors like technology. But through the funding of country-wide initiatives like the National Strategy for Wellbeing 2031, investments in mental health systems have the potential to increase economic participation.

Role of health programs

Nation or emirate-wide mental health programs have the ability to provide accessible services and accommodations to address barriers while also bolstering innovation and entrepreneurship to harness diverse talent and their contributions to society.

Macro-level systems should continue to understand how mental health services are utilized within the system to continue to attract and nurture diverse talent and accelerate economic growth. Therefore, establishing inclusive mental healthcare systems for the wider populace is crucial for maintaining the UAE’s allure as a desirable living destination and fostering its economic growth.

Dr. Mazna Patka and Dr. Hana Shahin are professors at Zayed University, currently working along with their colleague Dr. Linda Smail on examining the formalized system of mental healthcare provided by professionals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

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