Sharjah teen new book tackles mental health issues for teenagers

In her book Build a Better You — For Teens, Mahra Ali Alali about how in December 2020 she started attending online classes from her bed and mindlessly scrolling through social media

By Anu Prabhakar

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Published: Thu 21 Apr 2022, 9:32 PM

Mahra Ali Alali went through a difficult time, like many of her peers, during the Covid-19 pandemic. For an outdoorsy teenager like Mahra who loves horse-riding, staying at home indefinitely began to take its toll. “I used to be a very productive person before everything,” says the 14-year-old during an interview via Zoom. “And then suddenly, I slowed down a bit and started procrastinating.” In her book Build a Better You — For Teens, the Sharjah teen writes about this in detail — about how in December 2020 she started attending online classes from her bed and mindlessly scrolling through social media. Today, though, she follows a schedule where every minute is accounted for (9pm, for instance, is ‘sit with siblings’ time). “I realised that I needed help and I am really proud that I focused and developed myself. I began to feel satisfied about my day and I wanted to help other teenagers too,” she says. As someone who loves reading self-help books, the answer to how to do that was obvious — write a book for teenagers.

“Self-help books have helped me a lot and I know that not many people like reading them. So, I decided to write one in simple English, so that teenagers wouldn’t find it too complicated to understand,” continues Mahra, who started writing the book in March last year. She didn’t want it to read like a manual on how to succeed in life by working hard every day, with no room for errors. “Instead, I wanted them to know that it’s okay to take a break once in a while. I know what teenagers are going through and I wanted to tell them that whatever they are feeling is okay and normal.”

Understanding a teenager’s mind

The book is packed with important life lessons, inspiring stories, uplifting passages and — perhaps, keeping its young audience in mind — high school politics, all narrated in a conversational tone. Mahra, for instance, writes about those who once spread rumours about her and how she tackled the situation by remaining kind and respectful throughout. At the book’s core is a list of seven steps to increase productivity and the quality of one’s life, which the young writer spent a lot of time shortlisting — it helped that ‘7’ is her lucky number.

Teen mental health arose as a topic of concern and discussion during the Covid-19 pandemic — a UNICEF study, for instance, identified ‘social isolation, disruptions in daily life and uncertainty about the future’ as risk factors for depression in children and adolescents. In her book, Mahra suggests inculcating healthy habits like journalling, meditation and self-care to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. During the interview, she adds that teenagers largely felt isolated as they were unable to go out and meet their friends. “But generally, teenagers get so affected by their friendships — they get sad, sometimes depressed and they lock themselves in the room because of this,” she points out. “They try to fit in by pretending to be someone they are not. So in the book, I have tried to tell them to embrace who they are.”

“But I’m not saying that I’m perfect,” she continues. “I do get affected too. For instance, when I changed my school, the environment around me changed a lot. I tried to not be the odd one out, but I ended up changing a lot. I realised the effect it had on me so I started focusing on myself.” She also talks about the impact of doomscrolling on teenagers’ fragile minds. “It brings them down, even if they weren’t feeling down,” she says, adding that they also tend to believe what they see on social media and compare their lives with the carefully airbrushed ones they see online. “We should remember that we only know what they want us to know.”

Of all her seven steps, Mahra finds the one about letting go personally hard to implement. “Teenagers generally have a lot of free time and spend most of it on their phones. So, we think about the past repeatedly and it becomes very hard to put it all behind us,” she points out.

Seeking happiness

Dispensing advice through a platform as public as a book is no mean feat for fully grown adults, let alone a teenager. But as the oldest of six kids, Mahra believes that she just matured faster. “I also spend more time with older people, like my mum — although I have friends, I don’t spend as much time with them. I feel like my brain is a bit mature for my age,” she says.

But all this, she insists, does not make her a very confident person. “I’m a really shy person,” she smiles. “I didn’t find the writing part difficult, but I kept asking myself, ‘How are you going to go out and talk in front of people after you publish the book?’”

With writers in the family, it’s not surprising that writing came so naturally to her. “I always wanted to do something with my life,” she adds. But it took her a while to pick up reading as a serious hobby. “I used to flip through storybooks when I was too young to read and was determined to read them one day. But when I grew older, I started picking up the thinnest book in the library to read,” she recalls. “Then three years ago, my mum gave me the book The Four Agreements and when I read it, I saw everything differently and fell in love with reading.”

Mahra is already working on her second book, which will focus on happiness and fulfillment. “I am looking at developing this further — maybe I will start an online course. But right now, I am taking it slow,” she smiles.

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