11 Wellness Ambassadors trained to help foster holistic health among their peers
Students from three Qatar Foundation schools have been trained as Wellness Ambassadors for mental health – marking a first for the region.
The program was created to help high school students address their individual emotional issues, by offering them an outlet where they can share their concerns with a group of people they are seen as being most comfortable with – their own peers.
The pilot phase will see 11 Ambassadors from the three participating schools – Awsaj Academy, Qatar Academy Sidra, and Qatar Leadership Academy – take on roles as mental health advocates for their school mates in their respective schools. They will help their peers address emotional issues which, if left unattended, could potentially affect students’ mental wellbeing.
Teams from Qatar Foundation (QF), Sidra Medicine and The Learning Center worked alongside the three QF schools to establish the program. All Ambassadors underwent a two-day workshop where they were equipped with tactics to enable them to engage with their peers on issues related to mental wellbeing, and throughout the school year these volunteers will hold discussions with their schoolmates on six topics – understanding mental wellbeing, bullying, depression and anxiety, self-harm and suicide, substance abuse, and stigma and cultural misconceptions.
The reality is that one in five children - tomorrow’s innovators, reformers and global leaders - live with a mental health condition
“The reality is that one in five children - tomorrow’s innovators, reformers and global leaders - live with a mental health condition,” says Dr. Ahsan Nazeer, Division Chief, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Sidra Medicine, and Associate Professor, Clinical Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, a QF partner university. “This needs to be addressed.”
“Youth trust and look up to their peers than they would, adults. We realized that fact holds the key to raising mental health awareness in a way that high school students are comfortable with. And this is where the Wellness Ambassador program comes in. When older teenagers talk about mental health, it will help remove the stigma around the topic, and give those in need of help the courage to ask for it.”
The program also aims to spread the message of the importance of mental wellbeing using a platform that makes it easier to reach out to their peers – social media. The chosen Ambassadors will post straightforward messages on one of the six topics, on a weekly basis.
Students can approach the Wellness Ambassadors in their respective schools, with their concerns. Once the Ambassadors realize that one of their peers is in need of help, they can, when necessary, raise the concern with the school psychologist or counsellor, who will then decide how to proceed. The school counsellor, can also refer the student to Sidra Medicine’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health department.
A Wellness Majlis will be set up in each school, where students can drop in to discuss concerns, giving them an opportunity to talk about mental health issues in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Guests from outside the school community, such as physicians, religious scholars, and other professionals, will be invited to the Majlis to share their experiences on dealing with mental health concerns and well-being.
A student-led conference focusing on mental health will also be held at the end of each year. During the conference, the Ambassadors will put together a framework of initiatives based on their past experience, with these suggestions being implemented the following year.
It is a great feeling to know that I have the ability and knowledge to reach out to my peers and actually make them aware that mental health is a crucial element of their overall development
Maryam Al Sowaidi, a Grade 11 student from Awsaj Academy who was inducted as a Wellness Ambassador in her school, says she is delighted at being able to bring about a change in the lives of those around her.
“It is a great feeling to know that I have the ability and knowledge to reach out to my peers and actually make them aware that mental health is a crucial element of their overall development,” she says.
“The workshop touched on many aspects of mental health. It taught us how to engage with people who may be facing a mental health issue, but don’t know how to start addressing it. I’m looking forward to being an Ambassador on mental health so that I can reach out to my school mates who may need help.”
The horror I felt at losing a friend to mental illness when I was in university played a part in motivating me to conceive this program.
The concept behind the program emanated from the personal experiences of one of the physicians who helped organize the project: Dr. Ali Khalil.
“The horror I felt at losing a friend to mental illness when I was in university played a part in motivating me to conceive this program,” says Dr. Ali Khalil, a visiting resident at Sidra Medicine’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Sciences department and a senior psychiatry resident at Mental Health Services, Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC). “That’s when I realized that mental illnesses could be just as damaging as a debilitating physical ailment.”
In 2004, he joined medical school with a friend, who he soon noticed had started behaving differently.
“Initially he grew moody and isolated himself from the rest of us,” he recalls. “He missed classes and eventually dropped out of medical school. Over the next two years, we considered every possibility – stress, loneliness, even a vitamin deficiency; everything except mental illness. Finally, after three years we got a diagnosis – schizophrenia, a vicious mental health disorder. But by then the condition had taken over his life.”
The 32-year-old says that, unfortunately, the early signs with what happened to his friend almost 15 years ago is still often seen in Qatar, and within the same age group.
In 2009, a survey conducted across a random group of adults registered at various health centers in Qatar revealed prevalent perceptions about mental health. Of those surveyed, 50 percent believed that the medication used for treating depression and anxiety could cause addiction; and 90 percent said they would never marry someone with a mental health disorder.
In 2016, another survey – this time targeting students – was conducted at Qatar University. As almost seven years had passed since the previous survey, and the target group was much younger, the researchers expected participants to have a better understanding of mental illnesses and their repercussions. But that wasn’t the case. The perceptions of this younger age group were almost the same as those of the adults who took part in the 2009 research.
“It’s painful to know that young people who are the future of our country still have these misconceptions,” says Dr. Khalil. “I see manifestations of these research results every single day: teenagers and young adults who have endured bullying and abuse, or suffer from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, self-harming tendencies – in silence.”
The Wellness Ambassador program will help the younger generation face the reality that mental well-being is a crucial aspect of one’s health
“The Wellness Ambassador program is intended to break through this stigma, in a friendly yet evidence-based manner. It will help the younger generation face the reality that mental well-being is a crucial aspect of one’s health. And this will give them the confidence to face the challenges that come their way– especially during the transition from high school to university – and not get bogged down by issues that they were previously uncomfortable talking about or dealing with.”