Saudi woman’s pioneering efforts to improve mental health in KSA

Dr. Haifa Al-Gahtani has been a pioneer for Saudi women psychologists in the Kingdom. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 June 2020

Saudi woman’s pioneering efforts to improve mental health in KSA

  • I’m working on developing more programs that suit the country’s needs with regards to therapists

JEDDAH: A pioneering Saudi psychiatrist has taken on a new challenge in her professional efforts to improve people’s lives.

In 2005, Dr. Haifa Al-Gahtani was the first Saudi woman to specialize in psychiatry through Saudi Aramco’s Physician Development Program. She qualified as a cognitive behavioral therapist three years later.

Now she has become the first Saudi woman to be accredited as a trainer/consultant in cognitive behavioral therapy by the Academy of Cognitive Therapy in Philadelphia. This means that in addition to her role as acting head of the psychiatry department of Arabian Gulf University and running her own clinic at the Renewal and Reward Center in in Safa, Dammam. Al-Gahtani can now help to train and guide a new generation of therapists.

“We have many practitioners of cognitive behavioral therapy in Saudi Arabia, but the number of trainers is quite low,” she said. “My next step is to work on increasing the number of qualified, accredited supervisors.”

While there is an abundance of medical doctors in Saudi Arabia, she added, the number of qualified therapists and mental-health professionals remains comparatively low. Al-Gahtani wants to address this imbalance by improving the quality of training.

“There’s not a set level that you reach and then you stop; there’s always room for improvement,” she said. “I’m working on developing more programs that suit the country’s needs with regards to therapists — specifically a collaborative effort between Arabian Gulf University and the Kingdom to train qualified mental-health professionals in psychotherapy and, particularly, cognitive behavioral therapy.”

Al-Gahtani has helped to train psychologists from the Ministry of Health and at the Renewal and Reward Center, and is also training psychologists as part of the “Mubadara” program, which aims to raise the efficacy of psychological services provided in the Kingdom in the form of practical intensive training.

Yet Al-Gahtani did not initially set out to become a psychiatrist. Although she felt an affinity for the subject at university, she decided to specialize in internal medicine at King Saud University instead. Later, through her scholarship with Aramco, she completed a degree in psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Dr. Haifa Al-Gahtani has become the first Saudi woman to be accredited as a trainer/consultant in cognitive behavioral therapy by the Academy of Cognitive Therapy in Philadelphia.

• While there is an abundance of medical doctors in Saudi Arabia, Al-Gahtani says the number of qualified therapists and mental-health professionals remains comparatively low. She wants to address this imbalance by improving the quality of training.

• She says that her interest in behavioral therapy stems from the fact that it helps patients to help themselves.

“Physicians deal with physical ailments when things go wrong, with pain and rashes, tangible things that are seen and examined,” she said. “Psychiatry is more complex, in terms of what humans are suffering from, something you see the impact of rather than the actual thing.

“As an example, with depression and anxiety, or even worse stages of mental illness, you see the effects in that the individual doesn’t eat or sleep, and they lose interest and contact (with others). They become detached and withdrawn because what they’re experiencing is internal, more in the way they think and feel and interact.”

She said that her interest in behavioral therapy stems from the fact that it helps patients to help themselves. They are encouraged to deal with their issues by changing the outcome of situations that have a detrimental effect on their mental stability, going through different reactions and scenarios until they develop a better coping mechanism.

“Part of behavioral therapy deals with oneself having the ability to make a difference in your own life, if you’re guided and provided an opportunity to do things differently, because the only way to change something you’ve been through is to do something completely different,” Al-Gahtani said.

She added that there is still a social stigma surrounding mental health, which she has come up against at times. It affects not only people suffering from mental health issues but also the professionals who help them.

“What surprised me when I chose to first dedicate my study to this field was hearing things not from my family, but mostly people I worked with, who would say, ‘Why do you want with this crazy major? It’s for crazy people. No one will want to marry you,’ which is nonsense,” she said.

Things have started to change, however, since she first noticed such attitudes during her studies 20 years ago. Many students she taught have gone on to pursue careers in the mental health field and attitudes towards mental illness have changed with the arrival of this younger generation, who she described as “very open.”

“That’s the difference I’m interested in: To change the stigma surrounding mental illness and the profession and specialty,” Al-Gahtani said.

“I urge those who are suffering in silence to seek help. There is nothing to be afraid of.”


Saudi envoy calls for extension of UN arms embargo on Iran

Updated 22 min 12 sec ago

Saudi envoy calls for extension of UN arms embargo on Iran

  • Points out that Iranian pattern of behavior aims to create anarchy in the region by supporting outlaw groups
  • Says Tehran has taken advantage of divisions within the international community, while Riyadh wanted to promote a unified vision
NEW YORK CITY: Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, has urged the Security Council to “very carefully” consider extending its arms embargo on Iran.

The embargo is due to expire in October, a date written into UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed and helped implement the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Extending the ban is “the right (and) cautious thing to do, and the minimum response that can be expected from the world community (to Iran’s) actions and activities,” said Al-Mouallimi.

His comments came after the Security Council was briefed on Wednesday on what he called a “welcome and long overdue” report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, which confirmed the cruise missiles used in attacks on oil facilities and an airport in Saudi Arabia last year were of “Iranian origin.” The report, published last month, marks the first time Guterres has openly acknowledged Iran’s role in the attacks.

The Saudi envoy condemned the actions of Iran and said the Kingdom has constantly brought to the attention of the Security Council “the grave violations that Iran has been committing (by supporting) the Houthi militias in Yemen in launching numerous attacks against civilian targets in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, contrary to the provisions of Security Council Resolutions 2231 and 2216,” which prohibit the supply of arms to the Houthis.

He added that the “Iranian pattern of behavior aims to create anarchy in the region by supporting and promoting outlaw groups, whether it is in Yemen or Lebanon or Syria or Iraq. We can only imagine how this behavior would develop ... should the ban on arms and weapons be lifted in October.”

Al-Mouallimi said the recent attacks in the Arabian Gulf show that Iran poses “an ongoing threat,” adding: “We have maintained a high degree of self-restraint in the face of all these provocations and attacks, and we will continue to do so as much as possible.”

He said that during a recent visit to Riyadh, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook reiterated the message of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who warned that lifting the arms embargo would give Iran a license to continue its illegal actions.

Noting that an extension of the ban is in the interests of both the US and Saudi Arabia, Al-Mouallimi added: “What the US is asking us to do is make our voice heard in various circles and we’re trying to do that as much as we can.”

He acknowledged that it might be difficult to persuade Security Council permanent members Russia and China to approve an extension of the embargo, given their views on Iran and the region.

“(Russia and China) both expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia after the attacks on its territory, so we hope we can build on that to demonstrate that the only way to (condemn those attacks) is to maintain the current arms embargo against Iran,” said Al-Mouallimi.

“We respect (Russia’s and China’s) protection of their interests in the region but we think that these interests will be better preserved and promoted by stability and peace in the region, rather than for us to continuously face this kind of threat.

“The threat that Iran poses is not only to Saudi Arabia and the region, it is a threat that can reach far and wide,” he added, referring to a warning from Pompeo that Iranian missiles would have the capability to strike targets as far away as India and Poland, along with American bases in a number of countries.
Al-Mouallimi said that Iran is exploiting the differences that have emerged between Washington and European nations, Russia and China, and capitalizing on them.
“While Iran continues to take advantage of the divisions within the international community, we are trying to promote a unified vision, and a more constructive approach,” he said.
He added that he regretted that the optimism generated by the signing of the JCPOA in 2015 turned out to be “futile,” as Iran had continued to interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring countries. US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal in 2018.

“We went along with the JCPOA in the beginning (but now) the shortfalls of this agreement outweigh its benefits,” said Al-Mouallimi.

“Just yesterday, (Iranian) Foreign Minister (Javad) Zarif said clearly, ‘This is our region and we meddle with it as we please.’ No, Mr. Zarif, this is not a region that is open for you to meddle in. These are sovereign states, and you should stay out of these countries. You can meddle in the internal affairs of Iran as much as you like.”

Al-Mouallimi called for a fresh start, with the involvement of the Gulf nations “most affected by Iran’s behavior.”

Meanwhile, the trial of Saudi officials indicted in connection with the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul is due to begin in Turkey on Friday.

Asked whether Saudi Arabia would cooperate with Turkey on the trial, Al-Mouallimi said that Ankara has shunned such cooperation.

“We have asked Turkey to provide us with all the evidence, data or anything that they have that would help the process of justice in Saudi Arabia. They have failed to respond,” he said.

“During the trial that took place in Saudi Arabia, the Turkish representative was always present and witnessed the process as it went along. It is up to our Turkish friends to demonstrate their cooperation and goodwill on this issue, rather than simply use it as a political bargaining point.

“Justice is more important than to be used by any party for political games and political purposes.”

In December, a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death for Khashoggi’s murder, and three others were jailed for a total of 24 years.