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Story | Research
10 October 2019

World Mental Health Day: How Sidra Medicine is focusing on women’s and children’s wellness


In a short space of time, the QF member has contributed to huge changes in the level of treatment for mental health disorders in Qatar

Mental health has never been a comfortable topic for discussion, and only in recent years have health systems around the world started to truly elevate awareness of it in the public consciousness.

The aim is to open people’s minds about something that, according to the World Health Organisation, will affect one in four people globally at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people are currently suffering from mental health disorders, placing them among the leading causes of ill-health worldwide.

Sidra Medicine, part of Qatar Foundation (QF), was established to provide the highest quality of care for women and children, and to help nurture and protect families. The Department of Psychiatry at Sidra Medicine offers comprehensive Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) as well as the only comprehensive Woman’s Mental Health (WMH) service in Qatar. So far this year, it has had more than 6,500 patient encounters, two-thirds of which were with children under the age of 18 and the remainder being with perinatal women.

If you invest in the first years of a baby's life, you’re reducing adversity and increasing resilience when and where it makes a difference.

Dr. Felice Watt

This is significant because, as Dr. Felice Watt, Division Chief, Women's Mental Health at Sidra Medicine says, “It’s like the first 1,000 days principle - if you invest in the first years of a baby's life, you’re reducing adversity and increasing resilience when and where it makes a difference.”

To put this in context, the most recent figures from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs show that Qatar’s population includes around half a million children and adolescents, and about 28,000 babies are being born every month. Just four years ago, the country had just one child psychiatrist and almost no perinatal services. But huge changes have been brought about in a comparatively short time, with contributions from Sidra Medicine.

Professor Muhammad Waqar Azeem

Dr. Felice Watt

Depression, anxiety, and the impact of bullying at school - and the associated fall-off in academic performance, social and mental health development that this leads to - are by far the most common disorders among children and adolescents that are treated by CAMHS at Sidra Medicine, along with ADHD and autism. Among perinatal women, the most common conditions treated are anxiety, depression, and family issues.

And while Qatar is the only country in the region – and one of the few worldwide – that has a National Autism Strategy in place which enables children and families to receive best available help, there are still other aspects that need to be addressed. One of them is the challenge faced by many healthcare professionals in Qatar, who are treating patients of over 50 different nationalities, and the complications this can bring for both parents and children.

Mental and emotional wellbeing does not mean lack of mental illness.

Professor Muhammad Waqar Azeem

As Professor Muhammad Waqar Azeem, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Sidra Medicine explains: “Mental and emotional wellbeing does not mean lack of mental illness.”

The dynamics of a child going to school, developing friendships, and learning about being who they are and how they fit with all that is going on around them, mean it’s important that healthcare staff incorporate a holistic approach to the issues raised – because, just as there is never just one cause, there is never just one solution.

The academic performance and development of children is also threatened by the epidemic of sleeplessness that is manifesting itself in young people today, driven by increased exposure to mobile phones and other digital screens. Experts say the unnatural stimuli this gives to their brains, accompanied by the content they are viewing, is having a profound impact on their mental development in ways that doctors and researchers are only just beginning to understand - not least of which is the recognized link between lack of sleep, low self-esteem, and other psychiatric issues.

“To help address these challenges, we are happy to announce the pilot of a Wellness Ambassador Program in three QF schools, to bring specialist help directly into the schools where so many of the issues start,” Professor Azeem explained. “This will lead to increase mental health awareness among students, teachers, counsellors and families and hence leading to prevention and early intervention.”

A significant amount of vital work has been done in the area of mental health and wellbeing in Qatar, and more is being realised every day. But the way forward is crystallized by Professor Azeem: “It must involve better societal awareness of mental health and the issues surrounding it, more resources being made available in schools, communities, and hospitals, and the creation of a self-sustaining ecology with locally-educated and locally-trained mental health specialist doctors, psychologists, support staff and facilities.”

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