Tackling Depression in Saudi Arabia
Updated: Feb 13
As a student in social work, we talk a lot about social problems that are significantly prevalent in the United States, where I live. But what about in other parts of the world? Particularly, what about in Muslim majority countries?
That was a question that I really wanted an answer to, but sadly, it was never an issue that was brought up in our class discussions, nor on any assignment or required reading. So I decided to take the initiative and do some research. I went on social media and began searching for people that I could possibly talk to, people that lived in Muslim countries and worked in a social work or mental health related setting.
During my search, I came across Amer Alwafi, a mental health advocate and founder of the very first formal support group in Saudi Arabia called Jeddah Support Group. It is hosted in Jeddah, a city with a population of nearly 4 million.
I reached out to Amer and asked if he would like to be interviewed about the work that he does. Thankfully, he agreed and I was able to learn so much about his organization and how mental health remains a major issue in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Here's how our conversation went:
Salaam, Amer. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview! To start off, could you please introduce yourself and give a brief overview of your organization?
Sure. My name is Amer Alwafi. I'm 31 years old and a single dad of a beautiful 5-year-old boy. I love building communities and managing them. I started the support because i was looking for one. Jeddah Support Group follows the US and UK standard for support groups. We provide a safe space for others to express and share their experiences. I usually like to ask participants questions to help them dig deeper into the roots of their experiences and struggles. I hope that by asking certain questions, I can help them reach higher awareness and understanding of what they are going through.
MashaAllah. When did you first start Jeddah Support Group?
In August of 2019.
Wow, not so long ago! And what inspired you to do so?
I used to get one of those very low moods/gloominess episodically and didn't recognize what was happening at the time or how to deal with it. I felt like I wanted to vent, but I never talk because I try to appear like I don't need help to everyone around me, so they don't worry. I remembered what I used to see in the movies, where people would sit in a circle and everyone gets a turn to speak while some people would skip, I wanted that, so I started searching for what those were called, and discovered that it has different names: peer support groups, self-help groups, or simply a support group. I started searching for one in Jeddah, but found none, which made me read about how to start one myself. Once I learned that the host doesn't need to be a health professional, that they can come from different backgrounds and that it's not mandatory to have a degree in psychology, I decided to pursue it. I spent almost 4 months just researching, interviewing, and brainstorming before I created the registration form and spread it everywhere.
(He then sends me a link to the English registration form, which can be accessed here)
That's amazing! And thank you for sharing the form. Is this form also available in Arabic and other languages?
My pleasure! And yes, it is available in Arabic too.
Awesome. So what are some of the ways that you spread awareness of your group?
I mostly use social media. I also make it the main subject I talk about whenever I attend an event. I even spoke to my own family members about it. Recently, I was a guest on a radio and was even interviewed by a journalist from Arab News. They wrote an article about the support group and the importance of mental health. I would also love to someday create big campaigns to further raise awareness of mental health issues. I'm getting there, I guess.
InshaAllah, you will get there! I also read the article from Arab News. It was a very good interview, I love that they chose to talk about your organization.
How many people have you been able to help since you founded Jeddah Support Group? And what is the typical demographic of the people you serve?
Until this point, we were able to help at least 70 people in total. We host weekly sessions and get new members almost every week. However, the number of attendees at each session doesn't exceed 13 members. Their ages typically range from 21 to 34. We have mixed ethnicities but I'd say around 70% are Saudi. We mostly speak Arabic at our sessions. We started with English at first but then we transitioned to Arabic due to the increased number of Arabic speakers.
MashaAllah. What are some of the topics or concerns that people come in to speak about? Is this group focused on a particular issue (depression, ADHD, etc) or does it cover a wide range of issues?
Our talks mostly center around depression and anxiety. But as you may know, these are considered general subjects, since these symptoms can overlap in almost all mental disorders. One of the most common issues that people come in to talk about is toxic or unsupportive family environments. It's very common for topics to revolve around parents and family members, and sometimes even spouses.
What about access to mental health treatment? Is it easy to find mental health services in Saudi Arabia?
Mental health treatment is non-existent in rural cities, only major cities has it. However, until recently we've never had any formal support groups here. The only city in the Kingdom that offers formal support groups is Jeddah. Before that, there used to be zero, but after I started mine and encouraged others to start one, we now have at least three support groups.
That’s incredible. It’s amazing that you were able to take the initiative and inspire the formation of more support groups.
In your opinion, would you say that there is a stigma against mental illness in Saudi Arabia? If so, do you think that stigma is a major reason that people choose not to get help?
I believe the stigma is there worldwide, even in the most developed countries. But there are two major reasons that people in Saudi may not want to get help, and that is the lack of awareness and the stigma towards mental health. I believe the biggest reason is the lack of awareness. A lot of people here just simply dont recognize that they need to see a professional or that their symptoms need to be checked by a professional. I recently discovered that I have ADHD, something I always thought was simply "who i am" and was "part of my personality."
I completely agree. Even here in the US, where mental health services are available almost everywhere, there is still a stigma against going to therapy and receiving professional help. And speaking of professional, you’ve also mentioned that you do not have any background or degree in the mental health field. If that’s the case, do you confide in therapists or experts in the field to help guide your practice? If so, what has that experience been like?
Yes, always. I started recognizing severe cases during my group sessions and would encourage those attendees to get professional help. I would also try to ease that process for them in any way I could. I still like to sit and discuss with mental health professionals, like psychologists and therapists, or have them attend one of my sessions and discuss the session after it. I reached a point where I don't receive guidance in hosting the sessions anymore because they all believe I'm doing great (alhamdulillah) but I still like to discuss many mental health topics or cases with them.
Alhamdulillah. And I guess this is my last question. In general, would you say mental illness is a major problem in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? If so, what do you think can be done to better address this issue?
Yes, I would say it's a major problem that should be addressed and talked about more often. We need more centers and professionals around the kingdom. It should also be included in school curriculums to raise awareness and help abolish the stigma. We need campaigns, billboards, and advertisements talking about mental health as well.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions! Do you have any concluding remarks or anything else that you feel readers should know?
My pleasure, thank you for helping in raising awareness.
My vision is to make support groups "a thing" and implement them more in our culture. Just like there are many yoga studios and cycling groups here in the kingdom, we need to adopt the concept of support groups as well. Why are support groups important? Because they are the easiest step to take on the journey of self-healing and doing what we can to take care of our mental health. Many would find it hard to go and see a psychiatrist for the first time, but a support group will ease up that process so much, and it can channel society into accepting this type of treatment and make it a normal thing to do.
I couldn’t agree more. Support groups are extremely important and needed everywhere. For people struggling with severe mental health problems but aren’t sure of whether to seek professional help or not, support groups can definitely ease up the process. They help assure the person that they are not alone in their struggle and that there are others out there who are willing to support them. Thanks again for providing us with your insight. I hope your organization continues to grow and helps many more people, InshaAllah. May Allah reward you for your efforts.
Ameen, you too. I wish you all the best, dear sister.
Following my interview with Amer, I did a bit more research and learned that 34 percent of Saudis have experienced a mental health disorder at some point in their life, but 80 percent of Saudis with severe mental health disorders do not seek any treatment, according to an article by Arab News.
After talking to Amer about this, I can understand why such an alarming statistic like that exists. The lack of awareness and education about mental health can lead to many people believing that they do not need to seek professional treatment at all, and that is something that needs to change.
Undoubtedly, support groups like the one Amer founded are extremely important and needed in more places throughout the kingdom. They are the first step in making sure that people actually seek professional help, and a major step in abolishing the cultural stigma that exists toward mental health services.
Through more research and interviews, I hope to learn more about the issue of mental health throughout the Muslim world.