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DUBAI: Of the many problems in the Arab world exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, mental health is easily among the most insidious.

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Fortunately, a young Arab has made it his mission to help lead the conversation in the region and to fight the latent stigma surrounding feelings of depression and anxiety.

The story begins a few years ago when Ally Salama, a 24-year-old Egyptian athlete, moved to Toronto, Canada, to pursue university studies in entrepreneurship and innovation.

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After a happy childhood spent in Cairo and Dubai, says Salama, this decision led to a radical change in his cultural environment, which left him feeling isolated and alone.

“I made my first friend four and a half years after attending my first day of college,” he told Arab News.

“It was very hard. We are very culturally intelligent, but I didn’t want to give up my values. I could neither mix nor mix. Suddenly, I lost my identity and my mind in a year and a half. I felt completely different physically, mentally and psychologically. It caused me a lot of trouble in college.

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The depression set in quickly. He remembers not being able to get up or failing to meet his basic psychological needs.

The estimated global annual economic cost of mental health disorders is $ 2.5 trillion. (Shutterstock / photo file)

“Smoking and drinking wasn’t my thing, that’s what created the biggest divide in college life,” he said.

After reluctantly asking for help from his college advisor, Salama found the tools he needed to cope and has since sought to help others.

“It takes a lot for a man to admit it,” Salama said. “It’s very difficult and I’m here to make this awareness very visible. I didn’t have anyone who had been through this to tell me that everything was fine. It was then that I realized that there are so many people who feel like me but don’t have the courage to do it.

His healing journey has changed the way he views human strength – no longer just in terms of physical form, but rather as a combination of physical and mental.

So, when a university project emerged on entrepreneurial problem solving, he took the opportunity to launch an online platform called Break the Silence Egypt.

Overnight, 180 people anonymously submitted testimonials revealing their deepest and darkest feelings, in English and Arabic. “It made me realize that he’s taller than me,” Salama said. “Mental health is a problem.”

A man wearing a face mask walks past a mural painted as part of the Cities of Hope festival in Manchester and highlighting the effects of mental health as the number of cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 rises in 2020 (UKTN / File Photo )

After graduating in 2019, he had a brief stint as a banker in Canada before realizing he was sitting on the wrong side of the desk.

In parallel, he developed a mental health magazine for the Middle East called EMPWR. The first issue came out in March 2019, during her final year at university.

In July of that same year, Salama’s mentor, Dr Nasser Loza, president-elect of the World Federation for Mental Health and consultant to the World Health Organization, recommended that he speak at a workshop. Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh on the role of the media in mental de-stigma. -health problems.

“I spoke about people’s perceptions and why media work harms people’s quality of life,” Salama recalls.

“This experience changed my life. Depression and mental illnesses aren’t rational – you don’t even want to get better. It is irrational.

Mental HealthIn numbers

* $ 2.5 trillion – Estimated annual global economic cost of mental health disorders.

* 38% – Percentage of Arabs who know someone with mental health problems.

* 56% – Percentage of Arabs who say that quality mental health care is difficult to access.

* 48% – Percentage of Arabs who say that seeking mental health care is viewed negatively in their country.

Source: Arab Youth Survey 2020, WHO

It was only a matter of time before EMPWR became one of the region’s leading mental health magazines, from its base in Canada.

“The biggest problem with Arabs is that no matter how much they read online (about psychological issues), it’s not culturally relevant to our relationships, our marriages, our cultures, our homes and our thoughts,” said Salama.

“Successful counseling is an important part of relating to the person in front of you and understanding where they are coming from. I understood from my experience.

Soon the project expanded into podcasting with the launch of Empathy Always Wins. “Podcasting is quite educational – 70 percent of listeners have a graduate degree,” Salama said.

“We got the bestselling writers of The New York Times, the world’s No.1 squash player in the world, and business people people really respect.”

With over 100,000 downloads last year and a ranking among Harvard’s Seven Best Social Initiatives of 2019, the podcast’s success led Salama to launch the Art of Podcasting School with Microsoft for Startups.

He describes his podcast as a full and unfettered exploration of personal vulnerabilities, with the goal of making the ability to share and understand the feelings of others a sign of strength.

“Empathy is the key winning element for every man and woman,” he said. “Empathy always wins in life.”

Bayda Othman, a psychologist from the NGO Premiere Urgence, consults in November a patient at the mental health center of the camp for displaced Yazidis of Bajet Kandala near Dohuk, 430 kilometers north-west of the Iraqi capital, on the border with the Syria. January 18, 2020 (UKTN / File Photo)

Although the magazine’s content is currently only in English, Salama plans to launch an Arabic version soon. And there certainly seems to be an appetite for the subject.

When he started posting on his Instagram account in Arabic and English, he saw his following grow from 5,000 to 73,000 in just six months.

“Faces need to be vulnerable – people connect with people, not with logos,” he said, describing the positive role of influencers and ambassadors like him. “This is how you get the message out. People must be vulnerable to lead. “

Today, Salama works closely with schools, universities and businesses to help them launch programs around mental health.

So far, 40 schools in Canada have benefited, along with Microsoft, the Capital Club and Heriot-Watt University in Dubai.

“It’s about raising awareness and empowering other people to seek that help,” Salama said. “I am only a facilitator. But that’s my biggest passion when I talk to young children. The more shame, guilt and burden we carry, the more we live our psychologically disturbed, distressed and traumatic lives.

Now he wants to carry the same message to the Middle East, where he believes millions of people can benefit from his experience. He wants every Arab household to discuss mental health and wellness.

For young Arabs, he believes the time has come to tackle these issues, especially as life has become increasingly unstable in the wake of the pandemic.

With no COVID-19 infections slowing down in many countries, a steady increase in agonizing information and statistics, and unprecedented challenges at home and in the workplace, it is only natural for people to fall back on themselves. feel overwhelmed. (Shutterstock / photo file)

“Whether you like it or not, you will not feel at peace at any time because we are being bombed, which can cause stress,” Salama said.

With no COVID-19 infections slowing down in many countries, a steady increase in agonizing information and statistics, and unprecedented challenges at home and in the workplace, it’s only natural for people to fall back on themselves. feel overwhelmed, anxious and stressed.

Experts say there are plenty of ways to maintain good sanity in these uncertain times.

Among them are the benefits of establishing a good routine, focusing on things you can control like exercise and healthy eating, keeping living spaces tidy, and limiting new intake.

“People feel so lonely, especially during COVID-19, more than ever,” Salama said. For him, taking care of his sanity is like stretching before a workout to avoid physical injury.

“We don’t wait to be injured in sport to warm up,” he said. “We are warming up to be at our best.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek

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