Lockdowns, restrictions and the global pandemic have all taken their toll on our mental health. Dubai-based psychologist Dr Saliha Afridi encourages men to speak up
As men, we really seem to struggle when it comes to our mental health. Figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women in certain countries around the world, with only a small handful demonstrating a higher rate among women. Do we not seek help or talk about our problems enough? The recent pandemic has added uncertainty and a variety of restrictions to the mix, so how has this affected our mindset? Dr Saliha Afridi is a clinical psychologist, who has spent the last 12 years working in the UAE, and is the founder and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, which opened in 2011. A community mental health and wellness clinic, it offers a range of psychological and psychiatric care, as well as courses and workshops. Here she talks about mental health among men in the time of a global pandemic.
Why can it be a struggle for men to care for their mental health?
This idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ is an issue. From an early age, men are generally encouraged to be strong, with vulnerability or asking for help viewed as weakness. Boys might be taught not to express their emotions, which means they will struggle to understand, express or regulate them in later life. But I think we’re seeing a shift. There’s more awareness now, and prominent male actors and athletes who talk about their own mental health.
Has the pandemic made things more challenging?
It can cause a variety of mental health concerns, such as depressive symptoms, having anxiety due to the uncertainty, engaging in addictive behaviours due to the lack of a normal routine, and also having relationship problems. And if you experienced difficulties prior to the pandemic, these might be exacerbated.
Are there any specific causes to look out for?
Yes. To start with, the virus is an invisible threat, so that in itself creates anxiety. And the language we tend to use, such as ‘quarantine’ or ‘social distancing’, can be quite dramatic. Being away from the attachments and relationships we are used to, which we turn to in times of stress, takes its toll, and the restrictions on going out and travel, which feels like something is being taken away from us, and which we can’t predict or plan for, add stress.
Has there been an increase in people concerned about their mental health?
Through our experiences at The LightHouse Arabia, and also in our interactions with other mental health professionals around the world, we’ve seen how the pandemic has had an effect, causing anxiety as people adapt or struggle financially. In some cases, it can lead to mood changes, acute stress disorders, sleep disorders and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Everyone is affected negatively, but to varying degrees.
How can we tell if we are suffering from depression or anxiety?
Anxiety can be brought on by a fear of the future, with a lot of uncertainty, while depression can be linked to feeling hopeless or disconnected. Many people have lost loved ones, while others have lost jobs, their routine and a sense of normalcy, so may feel low or anxious.
Are there simple steps we can take to improve our mental health?
Talking to a professional, seeking their support and gaining a proper diagnosis, can help. Try to get a good amount of exercise, at least 20 minutes per day, and eat natural, healthy foods. Getting the right amount of sleep can be a big boost, so limit the use of mobile devices at bedtime, and caffeine throughout the day. And stay in touch with the people that matter to you. Sure, you’ll still experience difficult emotions, so take the time to listen to them. What are they trying to tell you? Can talking to a friend help?
Is social media an issue when it comes to mental health?
Social media is a wonderful tool for staying connected, but you don’t want to head down a path of questioning your own self-worth, engaging in social comparison and competing with others. It’s okay to have influences, but are they positive or negative? In that respect, social media can lead to difficult emotions, such as anxiety, depression and loneliness.
Is there still a stigma around seeking professional help?
Working with a therapist can help a person to process their difficulties and make meaning out of their problems. This is a treatment approach, but I personally believe in preventative action, talking to a therapist not just when a problem occurs but generally to help a person learn more about themselves, their emotions and coping skills, so they are well equipped when an issue arises. I’ve definitely seen an increase in people accessing help in the Middle East since I’ve been practising here.
How do you take care of your own mental health?
Routine gives a sense of control, so I always try to structure my day, starting off with some exercise – which is good to relieve tension and release endorphins. I make sure I sleep well, and I always prioritise what is most important, so I’ll cancel meetings or engagements without guilt. And I’m not hard on myself if I’ve had a bad day – just start over tomorrow. I have a weekly chat with my own therapist too, not to address specific problems, but to explore my own mental health and prevent issues from piling up. Meditation can also be helpful. lighthousearabia.com
Featured image photographed by Tom O’Neill for MOJEH Men 18
- Interview by Chris Anderson