The UAE’s first maternal mental health unit opened in Dubai, appropriately enough, on Mother’s Day this year, just as the country was heading into lockdown.
Thrive Wellbeing Centre, which opened in early 2018, was already well-established as a place offering counselling and therapy for adults, children, adolescents and children. But founder Dr Sarah Rasmi felt there was an area of mental health that been overlooked.
It was something she noticed through her work as a specialist in relationship counselling.
“Taking care of physical health around pregnancy is accepted everywhere, but paying attention to psychological health is not nearly as common,” she says. “A lot of mothers struggle with the decision to have a family while working, or there are difficulties within the family. We were noticing these issues were coming up with people who might have come in to the clinic for other reasons.”
The area of maternal mental health is so important because it is by no means restricted to women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth, but can affect the whole family. It also encompasses grief counselling for those who have suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth and support for those raising a child alone.
“We all like to think of pregnancy and the journey to parenthood as a joyous thing, but for many there are physical and emotional hurdles along the way,” says Dr Rasmi. “Pregnancy can place immense strain on a couple’s relationship. Equally, a relationship can suffer when the baby arrives and the family dynamic shifts.”
Post-natal depression has been a well-recognized condition for some decades now, but pre-natal mental health is less well-explored, says Dr Rasmi.
“There can be a fear of giving birth and it can be a traumatic ordeal. There is anxiety and depression and they can occur together. If more mothers-to-be were screened for depression and anxiety during pre-natal visits, intervention could happen earlier and they could get help before things get very serious.
“And of course, the pandemic has added another layer of fear. Who’s going to be in the delivery room? Is it safe? How might it affect the baby?”
Then there are all the other issues around maternity.
“Entering marriage involves a big adjustment, especially as more women in the UAE are going into higher education and careers and getting married later,” says Dr Rasmi. “That means there could be issues with fertility, so we also support those going through IVF or other fertility treatment.”
Childlessness, whether by choice or not, is another issue that is becoming increasingly prevalent in modern society.
“In psychology literature, studies show that people who choose not to be parents are just as happy as those who do,” says Dr Rasmi. “In the UAE we see quite a number of people who choose not to have children. They need help to come to terms with the fact that people around them cannot come to terms with their decision.”
Why was there this gap in mental health facilities? Are new mothers and expectant mothers expected to simply get on with it or rely on some primeval instinct?
“It’s partly cultural. There are varying levels of stigma attached to seeking help for mental health issues and there are also a lot of intra-cultural variations,” says Dr Rasmi. “Over time, that stigma has reduced in the UAE and that is to the credit of the government which instituted the Ministry of Happiness and put mental health on the agenda.”
Dr Rasmi is keen to stress that taking care of the mental health of mothers and mothers-to-be helps the whole family. The maternal mental health unit at Thrive has four psychologists – all mothers themselves and all equally passionate about the importance of keeping mothers and expectant mothers in good shape in body AND mind. Patients can also engage with several virtual support groups.
“There are a lot of different opinions out there and everyone wants to give theirs,” says Dr Rasmi. “Our aim is to bring clarity, to show that there are always options.”
For more information visit go to Thrive’s website.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.