Unveiling the silent struggles of mental health illnesses

Two UAE residents recount personal experiences of trauma in a bid to normalise the conversation on mental health

By Ghenwa Yehia

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Adel Bin Hdaya AlFalasi, right, with Dr Nahida Ahmed
Adel Bin Hdaya AlFalasi, right, with Dr Nahida Ahmed

Published: Wed 29 Nov 2023, 6:02 PM

Last updated: Thu 30 Nov 2023, 12:20 PM

If you or your loved ones are ever so unlucky that you break a bone, or even catch so much as the common cold, no one expects you to suffer in silence. You seek help from doctors, family, or friends to get back to normal.

But what if your illness leaves no mark? What if you seek help, and you’re met with doubt, disbelief, or worse yet, fear?

This is the isolating nature of mental health illnesses. It becomes a shroud that can affect every aspect of life.

Emirati Adel Bin Hdaya AlFalasi, 34, carried that shroud under the label of “possessed boy”.

When AlFalasi’s mental illness manifested itself at the age of 11 after traumatic events, he became aggressive and displayed explosive behaviour with an unexplained temper and a short fuse triggering hallucinations.

“For a long time, I thought everyone was like me. I could see and hear and smell these people,” AlFalasi said about his hallucinations. “But then I discovered, no, I'm special.

“My parents started to call me the possessed boy. My father said, ‘You need to go to the Imam so he can pray for you,’ or ‘You need to start reading Qur’an.’ They thought it’s black magic, like a djinn.”

Nothing helped, and AlFalasi began to identify with the moniker.

A literal stroke of luck was what led AlFalasi’s assessment for mental illness and a diagnosis.

“When I was 28, I had a sudden stroke while I was driving back home. When I was hospitalised, they did a full check-up, including a psychiatric one. They were confused why I had a stroke at this age,” he said.

After 17 years of suffering, and assessments by multiple doctors, it was Dr. Nahida Ahmed at SEHA, Abu Dhabi, Al Maqta Healthcare Center who diagnosed him with bipolar Schizoaffective disorder, along with epilepsy, PTSD, panic attacks, and social anxiety. It would be the first step on the long road to treat his illness.

Dr. Nahida Ahmed presents an award to Anna Marie Lopes
Dr. Nahida Ahmed presents an award to Anna Marie Lopes

For Anna Marie Lopes, a 37-year-old freelance digital marketing specialist, an abusive relationship was the trigger.

Married at 19, initially her former husband used such tactics as criticism and manipulation disguised as love and care to control her. A year into their marriage, he became physically abusive.

After six years of abuse and several failed attempts to leave, Lopes finally escaped her abuser when she flew to a safehouse. Maitri India is a developmental and humanitarian non-governmental organisation based in New Delhi that is committed to helping vulnerable populations, including abused women.

While there, she began another battle – this time with mental illness.

“I never expected that once I left the relationship, mental health problems would arise. I thought that when you're in a stressful situation, you experience fear, anxiety, low self-worth and depression because of what you face with your abuser. I thought that would end when I left that abusive environment.”

Frustrated by her inability to move forward with her life, she saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic depression, and an anxiety disorder one year after leaving her husband.

“I learned that I had a lot of trauma from this relationship. In abusive relationships, if you carry trauma and it’s untreated, it can affect you mentally – you’re still a victim of abuse.”

Both have been equally vocal about their journeys. They share their stories as widely as possible so that others may learn from their experience.

AlFalasi recently won the Mental Health Hero: Overcoming Barriers trophy at “the mentl awards 2023,” an awards ceremony held earlier this month, organised by mentl, a company founded by Brit and long-time Dubai resident Scott Armstrong. The company’s goal is to normalise mental health so that all people can thrive.

“No one should have to think they are possessed,” AlFalasi said. “For everyone who's struggling and suffering in silence, I want to use this platform to encourage people to step forward, seek help, and find people who can help them.”

Lopes came highly commended in the same category at the awards ceremony gala dinner at the St Regis Downtown in Dubai. She shares her story with other domestic abuse victims and founded 'Brave & Free Shop,' where she sells mental health merchandise to normalise the conversation on mental health and trauma.

“With trauma, it’s essential for others to validate your experience, or else you’re re-victimised by the stigma. Trauma heals through safe relationships, and I hope that by sharing and listening to others, I can provide that safe relationship to help someone else heal.”

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