One Wednesday night at The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre, a group of about nine men gathered to talk about a complex, but vital, species: mothers.
“In the first two sessions, we didn’t have a particular topic but in the last session the topic was ‘Sons and Mothers’,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr Asad Sadiq, who hosts the men’s group. As they poured their hearts out and sought advice from each other, discussions were punctuated with booming laughter and suggestions to convert the conversations into a podcast were instantly, but playfully, shot down. “One of the men said, ‘Nah man, it’s brilliant just to be able to talk without anyone else hearing you. Then you can just be yourself’,” he recalls.
Most men go about their lives without having a real outlet for their emotions. For instance, when do they ever meet up for coffee, just to have a good talk and to delve into their emotions? “Women meet up for coffee and have conversations, but the men always need to do activities like play pool or snooker or tennis,” points out Dr Sadiq.
As we lead increasingly detached and isolated lives, the psychiatrist believes in reviving the lost art of conversation and building connections through it. “I would literally meet people outside the coffee shop just for a brief interaction. With a little bit of conversation and eye contact, there is a connection there,” he says. But with easy DMs and pings replacing real talk, most people find interactions, spontaneous or otherwise, an inconvenience. “I think one of the issues with most places, especially the more affluent ones like Europe and Dubai is that there is a lot of loneliness because of this increase in individualism,” he continues. “And because of that, we rarely get the chance to talk even within relationships and families. And what I’ve noticed in Dubai is that, because it’s a transient population, people come here with less of a support system.”
He wanted to come up with something that didn’t feel transactional and the only motive was to get everyone to come and have a good conversation. So recently, he began hosting informal groups at the clinic – one group, called ‘Conversations Group’, is open to all and the other is the aforementioned men’s group, and both are held fortnightly - where the atmosphere is stripped of all barriers and power dynamics to make it feel more egalitarian. The sessions are free and the doctor’s own role is that of a ‘facilitator’ and not a know-it-all expert. “I am going in there as someone who wants to learn about these topics,” he elaborates. “For instance, in one of the groups, we had depression as a topic. But at the end of the day, I have never suffered from depression and I have never taken any medication for it. I don’t know what that’s like. I know the science of it but not the experience of it.”
Let’s talk about mental health
In the men’s group, attendees in their 30s, 40s and 50s talk about everything from parents, careers and relationships, to surviving a mid-life crisis. “There is a lot of pressure on men to be the provider…,” says Dr Sadiq. “The older men are at a very delicate age where their bodies are changing and the end comes in sight – it’s no longer something that seemed to be in the distant future like when you were in your 20s. And people react differently – some men may buy an expensive car or go on an expensive holiday with friends. Divorce or separation is common. It’s a challenging time.”
Boys are taught to bury their emotions in childhood and men have long been discouraged from appearing vulnerable as it isn’t considered ‘masculine’ or ‘macho’. Thus, as Dr Sadiq points out, they bottle up their feelings. “The rate of completed suicide among men is three times higher than that for women – and men in their 40s are at highest risk,” he adds. “In fact, one of the questions that we asked last time at the session was, ‘When was the last time you cried in front of somebody?’, and there were some men who saw it as a weakness. But we are human at the end of the day and men need to express their emotions too.”
He first started hosting such sessions for the general public in 2010 in the UK, where he used to live. He ran them for about six years until he moved to Dubai, where he began to host a similar group called ‘The Dubai Involvement Group’ at a hotel in Mall of the Emirates. “No money was involved and anyone could come,” he explains. “The purpose was to sit and talk about whatever people wanted to talk about it – it was not lead by conditions like OCD, depression and so on, it was more about life’s problems and their impact on mental health: like how much money is enough, should we be pursuing happiness or why is going on Sheikh Zayed Road so stressful. And at the end, we would discuss what we have learnt.” By the time the pandemic shut them down, the group had about 15-25 people. He resurrected the group recently as the ‘Conversations Group’ at the clinic, whose next session’s topic is: Why is it so difficult to connect with people in Dubai? “In such group sessions, there is a feeling that you are not alone in your experience and that not everybody is that different from you,” he explains.
A walk and talk at the park
He also hosts groups outside the confines of the clinic and this year, he has also been encouraging people to join him to ‘walk and talk’ at Al Barsha Pond Park. He first started to go on regular walks as a way to counteract the negative effects of spending long hours working. “But the problem is, it’s hard to stick to walking every day and it can get boring at times,” he explains. “I realized that it was much easier if I walked with a friend, and that time would pass very quickly.”
“So every Tuesday, when I go walking, people are free to come along from 9pm to 10:30pm, at no cost. It's good exercise, good for your mental health and people can feel more connected,” he continues. On the first day, 10 people turned up and Dr Sadiq recalls that people, very organically, split into smaller groups. One of them was Karen Hayre, a psychotherapist and Dr Sadiq’s colleague at the clinic. “I had a mixture of conversations with other members of the group - from lighthearted conversations around what we’re currently watching on Netflix to more serious conversations around grief, bereavement and loss,” she recalls.
The first time the group met, Dr Sadiq had suggested that they speak about the film that they had enjoyed watching last month. On later walks, they explored other topics like food, holidays and places they have been to. “Sometimes they split into groups of twos and threes and get to know each other well. The best thing is, there is no pressure to talk. It is dark outside anyway and you can just walk alone until you eventually come to know people,” he points out.
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