DUBAI: While gender stereotypes like “standing man” are universal, cultural and societal norms add an extra layer of complexity to men’s mental health and their willingness to seek help.
The Men’s Health Forum, a charity that researches and advocates for men’s health in the UK, points out that 12.5% of men suffer from a common mental health disorder. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 35.
While there is a great deal of research that indicates the prevalence of men’s mental health and why it is a cause for concern in the Western world, research in the Arab world is still largely lacking.
A study by the University of Sharjah highlights that anxiety and depression in the UAE are the most common mental health disorders, as women are more willing to access formal mental health services than men.
“These conditions can be genetic, as men with a family history can have a predisposition,” said Carolyn Yaffe, psychotherapist at Camali Clinic in Dubai.
She said other environmental stressors such as being the primary caretaker of a family, job responsibilities or sudden life changes can also put men at greater risk.
“In Arab culture, men are meant to be resilient and strong,” Yaffe said.
Universally, there is a culture of toxic masculinity.
Saif Al Bitar, life coach and advisor
“Any mental health problem like anxiety and depression is considered weakness and insufficiency. Therefore, their depression can take the form of anger or aggression, which is a more acceptable and “masculine” behavior.
Hamad Al-Saad, a former police officer turned holistic wellness coach from Bahrain, shed light on gender norms in Arab society.
“Men have always been the hunters, gatherers and suppliers – this is still ingrained in our culture and our behavior,” he said.
“We must act with strength, defend the name and honor of our family and our tribe. Displaying any kind of sensitive energy, such as crying, is therefore considered shameful. “
Through his work as a trainer, Al-Saad received countless private messages and testimonies from men who were struggling in silence, so he knew they were there. Although there are many public support groups for women, Al-Saad noticed a shortage of support groups for men. Given the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the fact that men are generally reluctant to seek help, a virtual support group seemed like an ideal solution.
Earlier this year, Al-Saad founded the Gentlemen’s Circle, an online support group that helps men reclaim their emotional power and embrace their authentic selves. With the aim of “bringing gentleness back to gentlemen”, the group meets almost every week and uses a structured approach to support its members.
Al-Saad shared an example of how a member initially defined their worth through accomplishments and successes.
“It seemed like he didn’t know himself,” Al Saad said. “But slowly, we saw him open up, share his hobbies and tap into his inner child. It was so difficult for him at first.
In the midst of family responsibilities, another member of the group felt lost. Al-Saad explained how the support group validated the member’s experience to help him through a difficult time.
It’s good to express, to be seen and heard, and to seek validation in everything we experience.
Hamad Al-Saad, A former police officer turned holistic wellness coach
“We’re all going through the same things and if we don’t talk about it, no one will know what’s going on,” Al Saad said. “It’s good to express, to be seen and heard, and to seek validation in all that we experience.”
Tapping into their authenticity is an ideal result for sessions.
“That in itself has a huge impact on how people can get on with their lives,” he said.
The expatriate male population is also a vulnerable demographic, Yaffe said. In her psychotherapy practice, she has encountered many men with stressors specific to the expatriate community.
“Job transfers, no job security, helping their families and children to adjust to an unfamiliar society, the high cost of living and loneliness (so far from the family) are some of the reasons where men’s mental health is a relevant issue, ”Yaffe said.
In 2019, Michael Leonard, executive coach and therapist, founded Any Man in Dubai. The group aims to connect men with common interests and help them meet the challenges life throws at them.
“Sitting down with a group of peers and talking about real, honest things – without judgment or fear – can be quite powerful,” Leonard said.
“We hope to bring about a change where men can be open and responsible for their emotional states.”
Life coach and counselor Saif Al-Bitar, who works with Any Man, said the group hopes to create a culture that moves away from the male gender norms that currently exist.
“Universally, there is a culture of toxic masculinity,” he said. “We try to move away from preconceived notions of what defines their masculinity by showing them a different way of looking at life, themselves and others.”
Weekly virtual group sessions begin with a meditation that allows members to connect with their physical and emotional states. Al-Bitar shared an example where a member was angry because he was being bullied at work and how the team used different methods to get the member to identify and process their emotions.
Besides the virtual and in-person sessions in small groups, Any Man also runs weekend retreats where they take members to natural environments in the UAE.
“The two-day retreats include ceremonies of yoga, meditation, anger and self-acceptance,” Leonard said. “But also, a lot of exercises that help them look inside.”
Leonard shared an example from last year’s retirement when several Arab men showed up nervous, but within the first hour the group hugged and cried with each other.
“It was a really intense weekend and they dealt with a lot of stuff,” he said. “They left retirement saying ‘I need to do more work on this.’ It was the start of a journey for many of them. It was also humbling and powerful to watch.