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Mental Health Support for Students Is Still in Early Stages in the U.A.E.

DUBAI—Sabrina Subaiei is just 22. She lives in a residence hall here at United Arab Emirates University and studies online. Far from her family in Saudi Arabia, she can go as many as seven days without seeing anyone in person.

Living in that solitary environment as a result of Covid-19 has driven the psychology student to campaign for a fully-fledged counseling center for students. Currently, she says only two counselors serve the university’s 15,000 students. She says the university should increase counseling support and come into line with international standards.

Louise Lambert, who teaches psychology at the university, says the difficulties that students like Subaiei have faced are widespread. “I don’t think Covid is to blame,” she says, “though it’s made it worse. I think universities have not done a good job generally in terms of mental health and well-being needs for students. It’s not about just helping those not doing well, it’s about helping everyone do better.”

Mental health has become a major priority across the emirates this year with initiatives led by the likes of the Ministry of Health and the Community Development Authority to raise awareness to support for mental health. But the effort to support students’ mental health appears to be uneven.

The Higher Colleges of Technology, the national public college network with 16 campuses, has one counselor at each campus. Ahmed Al Mulla, director of student engagement and success for the Higher Colleges, says the counselors have been vital in supporting students’ transition to an online life. Counseling sessions were delivered through online counseling, tele-counseling, live sessions and clinical online round tables. The counselors, he says, “have been very instrumental in helping students achieve academically by helping them cope with social, and emotionally challenging situations.”

Private Universities Respond

Some of the country’s private universities, including Abu Dhabi University and the American University of Sharjah, also have established counseling centers. New York University Abu Dhabi’s campus has three counselors in its health center for its roughly 1,350 students.

The Dubai campus of the United Kingdom’s University of Birmingham has established a “well-being team” this year that includes three student well-being ambassadors. Zoha Naqvi is one of them. “We connect with the students through activities and social media on various aspects, including but not limited to inclusivity, empowerment, academic and physical well-being,” she said.

“We connect with the students through activities and social media on various aspects including but not limited to inclusivity, empowerment, academic and physical well-being,”

Zoha Naqvi  
A student well-being ambassador at the University of Birmingham Dubai

The university also has set up a Rain Room, furnished with plants, that gives students an opportunity to take a break and relax from any sort of stress, she says. The Dubai campus’s students can also access a network of mental-health experts at the university’s U.K. campus.

At the United Arab Emirates University and other campuses, students such as Subaiei are doing their best to cope. Subaiei may live a solitary life, but at the same time, she is surrounded by others. Foreign students at the United Arab Emirates University typically live in the dorms.

Subaiei is doing a research project so she needs to be on campus, to have access to facilities such as the library and to have occasional in-person meetings with her professors. Usually, she says, she would go to classes and then come back and work on homework. Now, she says “my classes are in the same place and my homework is in the same place.”

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Subaiei is on a mission to create change. She is working with one of the university’s counseling specialists to research and develop a counseling center based more on U.S. standards. In a recent online survey of 215 students, she found it is clear many of them are desperate for mental-health counseling.

“I don’t feel like there’s a lot of support in the university, though they’re trying,” she says.

When the pandemic started, students were sent details of U.A.E. helplines, but Subaiei says more must be done, especially for those coming from abroad. Even before Covid, she says the university lacked events, trips or cultural engagements to allow the international students living in dormitories to make friends. And after the pandemic arrived, she says, the university should have a dedicated center for socializing and student activities. The pandemic has had one positive effect, she says: “I feel like now the university’s more aware there’s a problem.”

The Loneliness of Distance Learning

Online learning is exacerbating feelings of anxiety and loneliness she says. “Online classes are not as interactive. Students feel like they can’t participate as much or even ask for assistance.” As many as 30 to 60 students can be in a classroom for general studies subjects at one time, she says.

“Online classes are not as interactive. Students feel like they can’t participate as much or even ask for assistance.”

Sabrina Subaiei  
A Saudi student at United Arab Emirates University, in Dubai

Lambert,  the psychology teacher, says many students are struggling online, complaining of boredom and a sense of feeling trapped.

“It feels for them like life is on pause and they’re just waiting for something to happen,” she says.

While some webinars are being offered at universities on mental health and well-being, Lambert says the institution needs a mental-health infrastructure. “Webinars are not the personal support that students, and all of us, need,” she says. Many students, she says, are too shy or intimidated to speak up in a group setting when they have the chance.

She suggests someone should be reaching out to students on a one-to-one basis on the phone or through video calls, or at least making such calls available.  “It’s a real failure of educational institutions in this country. Universities don’t recognize it’s also part of their role.”

Diksha Laungani, a Dubai-born and U.K.-educated child and adolescent psychologist who works at a university in the Emirates, also says universities must be more proactive and preventive instead of just reacting to students’ problems.

In addition, Laungani says the students themselves, like Sabrina Subaiei, can be a force for change. They can create support groups, for example, and work collaboratively with universities.

Teachers, family and friends need to look for signs of mental struggle, she says. Difficulties in performing everyday activities, loss of sleep, abrupt changes in mood or appetite, difficulties in concentrating, and loss of interest in activities, can all be signs of a young person who needs additional attention.

At the institutional level, she says, “the language of mental health and well-being needs to be normalized across university staff and students.”

Secondly, she says, the impact of mental health on academic performance needs to be recognized, rather than treating the two as separate entities.

“Academic development, well-being, careers departments need to come together to promote student development—a unified goal,” she concludes.

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