Anna MacMillan started UAE Buddy, a group focused on bringing together people who need help with people who will give it, after seeing her mother struggle with stress and worry in Spain.
“She’s immune-compromised, lives alone and has a dog that needs to be walked,” says MacMillan. “She was very stressed with the current scenario, so I arranged for young neighbors to walk the dog so she wouldn’t need to come out daily.”
The results – a calmer mom, a happy dog and some puppy playtime for neighbors – got MacMillan thinking about the Middle East.
“I thought of friends we have in the UAE who are living alone, who might be worried and stressed.”
She thought they might need groceries, an emergency contact or someone to take care of their pets if they went to hospital.
“I started to check in on all of them… That’s when I thought to make it into a group,” says MacMillan.
The result is an entirely free, community-focused group that brings together those who need care with those who can give care.
“We’re all in this together, especially in a place like Dubai and the UAE in general, where the community never ceases to surprise me with solidarity and togetherness when there’s a call for help,” says MacMillan.
Like UAE Buddy, several other initiatives have launched over recent weeks that aim to help UAE residents navigate the mental health challenges of Covid-19.
One of the most significant of these is The National Campaign for Mental Support, an initiative by The National Program for Happiness and Wellbeing, which aims to connect more than 50 mental health professionals and experts with the public. There are live virtual sessions hosted by experts, awareness videos from life coaches and professionals offering coping skills and virtual support groups aimed at certain niches of the population.
On a smaller scale, Wise Mind Center has also rolled out special programs to help with handling Covid-related stressors.
“We created [free] virtual support groups because we know a lot of people are feeling isolated, overwhelmed, confused and stressed,” says Dr Khadeja Mousa, co-founder and clinical director of Wise Mind Center. “It’s not unusual in a situation like the Covid-19 outbreak to feel emotionally overwhelmed and to have difficulty coping. We wanted to find those people and reach out to them.”
Bolstering mental health is a crucial aspect of the public response to Covid-19, he says. “Support groups can prevent risk and help strengthen coping mechanisms.”
Since launching the groups, Dr. Mousa has noticed a powerful response, which he links to a need and desire for human connection that times like these bring out.
“Clients were expressing fears about their own health and the health of loved ones, feelings of isolation, job uncertainty, difficulties working remotely and challenges that come with lack of space or time when confined with family,” he adds.
Darkness Into Light UAE, a voluntary initiative that provides mental health assistance and support, is another group that has branched out into offering Covid-related programs online. This long-running community is still offering its usual services – like connecting people who message with requests for help with counseling and support – but after beginning with a free online session on Sunday nights, they are now offering live sessions on Facebook and Instagram every night of the week.
“This is a light-hearted and fun conversation that discusses mental health and wellbeing in an effort to support people’s self-care routines at home,” explains Maria Kelly, chairperson of Darkness into Light UAE.
“Requests from people are as varied as ever, covering depression, anxiety, loneliness and stress,” she adds.
The group will also be launching their website soon, with plenty of online resources and suggestions for self-care activities at home.
If you are struggling with difficult feelings, Dr Mousa recommends six actions:
- Maintain a routine at home
- Limit media exposure to just twice a day from reliable sources
- Be a role model to children in how you handle stress
- Connect with others through technology
- Exercise to lower stress
- Stay present.
Finally, he adds, just know there are others out there dealing with all the same challenges.
“There’s nothing more comforting than to hear someone say ‘me too,’ and to know that you’re not alone.”
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist. In addition to working as editor-in-chief of Women's Health Middle East and Men's Health Middle East, Danae has written for The Sunday Times, CNN Travel, Dubai Tourism, The Guardian, Afar, Bloomberg and many more. She's based in Dubai and is a trainer at Crank. instagram.com/danaemercer