Mental Health Awareness Foundation

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“When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘We’, even illness becomes wellness.” –Anonymous

A London based psychiatrist, Dr. Shaazneen Ali has long been aware of the limited resources and services in the Maldives when it comes to health. To Dr. Shaazneen, the particular limitations surrounding mental health awareness has been a subject of great thought for quite some time. This eventually led to discussions amongst herself and some friends in 2012 as to how they could create awareness about mental wellbeing. Despite the stigma surrounding mental health, Dr. Shaazneen stepped beyond social taboo and in August 2014, registered the Mental Health Awareness Foundation (MHAF) along with her friend Aishath Yoolia Haleem.

The first of its kind in the Maldives, MHAF was officially launched in January this year in the hope of creating better awareness among the general public about mental wellbeing. MHAF has held its first set of trainings on Mental Health Gap training based on the mhGAP and Mental Health Awareness and Psychological First Aid; the beginning of a series of programs that MHAF hopes to conduct in the Maldives. With selected health care professionals as participants, their sessions on mental health have proven to be of great use to those who work in the health sector.

“This training has been very useful, especially because we have so many children at the ‘Kuda Kudhinge Hiya’. Most of the time everyone just focuses on physical wellbeing instead of mental wellbeing. This training has opened our eyes to what we need to look out for and how our care workers can support and talk to children.” – Nisha, Counsellor, Kuda Kudhinge Hiya.

Although relatively new to the Maldivian society, MHAF has received some very generous sponsors; enabling them to break the stigma associated with mental wellbeing, even if a little. Dr. Shaazneen believes that for MHAF to be welcomed by society without resistance, the NGO has to offer a personal touch, something the society can relate to. This is where the Yoolia steps into the picture, as the general face of MHAF that the layman can relate to and associate with. As a teacher, Yoolia is a very important protagonist in connecting the dots when it comes to society and acceptance.

“This training taught me a lot about how to deal with patients with disorders. It also taught me a lot about how we can provide better care for the patients at the Centre.” – Shaany, Supervisor, Centre for People with Disability.

Unlike most of the awareness groups in the country, MHAF has gone beyond borders in bringing its audience the much needed education on mental health. Determined to give it her best, Dr. Shaazneen has recruited volunteer psychiatrists from London to participate and work in collaboration with MHAF in creating mental health awareness in the Maldives. His first time in the Maldives, Dr. Bartlomiej Matras wasn’t “entirely sure what to expect from the participants” but was “pleasantly surprised about how aware the health care professionals were and how keen they were to learn and share their ideas and experiences” in the training programs.

“We got a lot of information about mental health and some of the disorders present in our society. For instance, if a patient comes to us, we now know what to say to them and their family. We now know how to handle such cases. I think this training is the best we have had here with the most participant involvement.” – Abdul Azeez Hameed, Dhamana Veshi

Dr. Soumitra Burman-Roy, also from London, said that it was a good experiences and he enjoyed teaching the health care professionals and “they raised a lot of issues about people struggling and not as much awareness among the populations. Even though the trainees were well versed, they we still grateful for the training”. Speaking about mental health in the Maldives, he said that “it seems a lot of people have had experience with people with mental health issues and are in very extreme situations” and that the health care professionals needed a lot more training to tackle these issues.

“The training is actually very useful for everyone. We learnt a lot in these six days about how to assess and manage patients who present with disorders. Because in our line of duty, we have to deal with these kind of people in our day to day life.” – Fathmath Neema, Victim Support Unit, Maldives Police Service.

MHAF plans to create awareness about mental health through media campaigns, targeting the new media as well as traditional media. Dr. Shaazneen’s focus is on “decreasing stigma and increasing awareness” about mental health as they target their campaigns for the World Mental Health Day celebrated every year on October 10th. The NGO has laid what is a stepping stone to a much neglected social crisis in need of dire attention and advocacy by professionals. MHAF hopes to educate health care professionals so they may better “diagnose and treat” patients with mental health disorders. Although laden with obstacles, with the support they’re receiving from health care professionals, the future looks bright for MHAF.

“This is a very good program. When we first attended, we didn’t know the significance of such a training program. But after being here for six days, we feel we need a special training to become trainers. Because this is a neglected area in our everyday life. Also, the Mental Health Millennium Goal wasn’t there in the UNDP’s list before. We need to add it to that so that we can collaborate with it.” – S.N Rinzy, Senior Nurse Manager, Vilimale Hospital.

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