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.
“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.”