Lending an ear online – the UAE’s mental health heroes.
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Lending an ear online – the UAE’s mental health heroes.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to destabilise lives, businesses and economies around the world, a devastating aftershock has been the mental health toll on entire societies as people struggle with fear, depression, anxiety and isolation.

DUBAI | Jennifer Bell

In May, the United Nations (UN) warned the pandemic “has the seeds of a major mental health crisis,” highlighting that the isolation, fear, and economic turmoil surrounding it could cause significant psychological distress.

Nurses, doctors and other frontline workers have garnered huge praise for their dedication during the crisis. Behind the scenes, however, mental health professionals and volunteers are also striving to ensure that those feeling the emotional toll of unprecedented changes to daily lives, job losses, financial strain and separation from loved ones have where to turn for help.

From telehealth to online counselling, mental health experts are offering a vital lifeline to those in need.

In the UAE, social psychology experts have volunteered their services thanks to an initiative by the UAE National Programme for Happiness and Wellbeing (NPHW), which aimed to connect mental health experts and people struggling with loneliness and other mental health problems during the pandemic.

Marie Byrne, a professional counsellor from Ireland working in Dubai, was among those volunteers.

“Because fear, anxiety and stress - any kinds of stress really - has one of the biggest negative impacts on our immune system, it is vital we help people to stay mentally healthy to safeguard them against the virus,” Byrne says. “What the NPHW was doing inspired me as they are doing this to help people and improve their immunity and well-being.”

Byrne, who offers online support at mariewellnessclinic.com, conducted cognitive behaviour webinars for NPHW, teaching "coping strategies” that people can practice themselves should they feel waves of anxiety.

“Many are grieving right now for the loss of a future that they were planning – it is like a grieving process for the life they had. It is important to relay the message that they are not responsible for the pandemic or the changes that have come into their life - they just need to develop coping strategies. When people can communicate and connect with others in the same situation, it can also make them feel less isolated.”

Byrne says a “silver lining” of COVID-19 has been its encouraging more people to speak out about mental health. This month, NPHW set up a national hotline in the UAE to support the mental health of vulnerable people during the coronavirus outbreak.

Those in need can call the toll-free support line, 800-4673 (Hope), or connect on WhatsApp to speak directly with specialists.


Chris Haill, a 53-year-old British father in Dubai, has also been campaigning for mental health support services for those in crisis. After suffering from mental health issues and depression for almost 40 years, Haill attempted to take his life on January 2 before police intervened.

After a brief spell in hospital and counselling, Haill has sought to help those who struggle with feelings of anxiety and depression get the help they need.

Since sharing an honest account of his depression and struggles on social media using the hashtag #justreachout, Haill has been inundated with calls.

“In about six weeks, I had about 250 calls from people saying, ‘We have problems, too.’ They were able to talk to me because I shared my suffering. Talking to a normal individual like me is probably easier than talking to a doctor or partner or your mates or your company."

While Haill believes mental health issues will only grow in the wake of the pandemic, COVID-19 has brought a "Dunkirk spirit” (stoicism and determination), a sense of camaraderie and a desire to help those in need.

“It's a funny thing because I don't see myself being helpful - I just don't believe in turning away. I think that lots of people are helping other people. That has been the upside of this situation.”