Psychotherapist and Clinical Hypnotherapist Her Highness Sayyida Basma Al Said talks to A&E in a bid to raise awareness of mental health issues people in the region and worldwide are facing.
Her Highness Sayyida Basma Al Said is one of the most established Psychotherapists and Clinical Hypnotherapists in the region. Her mental health clinic Whispers of Serenity was the first mental health clinic in the Sultanate of Oman and since opening nine years ago, Al Said has built a strong reputation both in the Gulf region and internationally.
As well as the running of the clinic, Al Said is a public speaker who travels the world to share the story of her Not Alone Mental Health Awareness campaign which is supporting her on-going effort to create awareness of the importance of mental well-being.
Al Said strongly believes that we need to talk about mental health more openly making people aware of issues that people face and explaining that these issues are not uncommon and should not be seen as a taboo, but something that is affecting the lives of millions on a daily basis.
For World Mental Health Day 2019, Her Highness Sayyida Basma Al Said spoke to A&E about the steps she is taking in order to raise awareness of these important issues.
Why do you think it’s important to talk about mental health?
A lot of us think about our physical issues more than thinking about how we feel. I think we’re sometimes taught from a very young age not to actually express that part of our life. Talking about mental health and bringing it to light is something that a lot of people find difficult. Even though things have changed with time, there is still a feeling that mental health is a private issue and people feel that if we talk about it then others are going to look at us in a different way, even though it’s very normal to go through any mental health issues. Actually not talking about it is sometimes a bigger problem and a bigger issue than the problem itself.
Mental health is a topic that people usually talk about in a negative way like it’s a big secret. We are sometimes educated about mental health in a very dry way that makes it difficult for a person to actually understand what it is. So I think the way some people still approach it is very wrong. All of these reasons give the importance of why we need to talk about it and explain that it’s OK to not feel OK.
We need to explain to people why they need to talk about it, and the big question is; why not? We talk about our physical symptoms but we rarely talk about our emotional or psychological symptoms, so yes, talking about it is very important and the more we talk about it, the more we actually save lives.
Do you think attitudes towards mental health especially in the region are changing?
Yes, they are changing a lot. A lot of people from my generation are aware that there is a problem and we need to talk about it. Even people from the older generation are doing so and the younger generation too. A lot of people ask me this question and they say ‘yes but in your region, it must be even more difficult’, and I easily say no. In all of the world mental health is a topic that isn’t talked about.
The only difference, I would say, is that in the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, they have more awareness campaigns. But that doesn’t mean that everybody there is OK with it. The biggest proof of that is that a lot of times when we hear stories of people taking their own lives, nobody knew they were depressed.
So it’s all about awareness. Yes, in our region we need more awareness and that’s why I keep on pushing the bill that we need to talk about it more, but that’s the only reason, not because we are different from others.
I totally believe that this subject is going to become less of a taboo, but it’s always going to be something that is a little difficult to talk about because this is a topic that is very secret and it’s about things that only you alone can know about. But, do I feel that in my region it’s more of an issue than in other regions? Honestly, I don’t see it that way.
Do you think the stigma around counselling and seeking advice from professionals has lessened in recent years?
Yes, it has it’s become a lot better. Talking from my experience – I have a private clinic which I opened nine years ago and we have waiting lists. I think this is because people feel safe to come and talk. A lot of people have raised the issue of ‘what if people know that I’m coming here?’ or ‘are you as therapists going to share with others what we tell you?’ Because a lot of people don’t understand that there is a code of confidentiality that every professional should stick to.
So we need to comfort them and make them understand this. Yes there are a lot of people going to professionals and they do seek help and it’s all about making the environment safe for them.
What is your advice to people who may be thinking about seeking help but don’t know where to turn?
When you go through anything to do with mental health, the first step is accepting that you have a problem. A lot of people bring others to the clinic to see me and sometimes those people don’t think they have anything wrong with them but their parents or friends have noticed something and brought them there.
But that’s not going to help. Those people in particular need to understand that there’s something wrong with them and they need help. That’s the first step to being better.
The second thing is that some people worry about what others will say. Just think that when you hurt you hurt alone. Everyone around you is carrying on with their life, so you need to do it for yourself. You deserve to feel better. It doesn’t matter what people say because people are not going to be there when you fall. So I always tell people to seek help the moment they feel they’ve tried more than once to carry on and they haven’t succeeded.
The earlier the better as the longer you leave things the more the problem grows. A lot of people think they can talk to their friends or family, but these people are connected to you emotionally, it doesn’t work. If it’s a serious matter you need someone professional to help. So seek help as soon as you feel that you cannot keep that balance anymore or there is something you can’t sustain.
What more do you think should be one with children to educate them from a young age about mental health issues?
I really, truly believe that mental health should be taught in schools. Why wait until later? I think it should be part of the curriculum. If you have a child and they grow up with the idea that they can talk about this topic, it’s way better than waiting until later when it’s too late. I honestly think it should be part of education that the child should receive from when they first go to school.
The way it’s taught however has to be interesting and creative. I’ve noticed a lot of people talking about mental health in a really dry way with big words that nobody really understands. I think the way it should be taught is in a creative, interactive way.
There is much talk about social media and the effects it can have psychologically – in your opinion what steps should be taken to fight against online bullying and trolling?
The effect that social media has on us psychologically and cyberbullying are obviously the biggest topics now. Sadly it’s had such a big effect that a lot of people have actually ended their lives because of this. So to answer this question, I would go back to what I just mentioned about educating children from a young age.
Educating through school, through media, through awareness campaigns. Education for both the people that are getting bullied and the ones that are doing the bullying. The bullies need to understand that this is not a good thing and actually have explained to them what’s going on. Again not telling them, ‘no you can’t use social media’, but telling them they can use it but in a wise way.
Also explaining to them that this, in the end, is not the real world. A lot of people on social media at all ages tend to want to follow people who they think look glamorous, but they don’t know what that person is really going through. A lot of things that happen on social media these days that have no positive effects at all. You can see people doing amazing work and then other people commenting and saying bad things about that. The people saying the negative things, I sometimes look at those people and think maybe they are the ones that have an issue?
But we can’t reach them by just being angry, we can reach them through digital campaigns and through social media and that’s the way we need to do it. We all need to talk and express how we feel about what’s going on and that’s the only way things like this will change. The creators of these social media platforms need to also do something about these issues.
What do you think is the psychological impact of social media with many young people seeing this “perfect” lifestyle online?
We have all these people now that call themselves ‘influencers’ but the question is what or how are they influencing us? We have to really keep our eyes open and instead of saying ‘I want to be like her’ think ‘why do I want to be like her?’ Is it because you feel like she’s living a better life than you? We don’t know how her life is. This is also something very important when it comes to educating our kids. We just need to talk more about these things and talk to young people in the right way, that is the key.
How important is time and the ways we spend our time on our mental health?
I hear this so much. People telling me they don’t have time to do the steps I’m recommending they do. The moment someone says they don’t have time I ask them what are the other things they are doing? Okay, there might be other things they need to do, but they cannot tell me that in twenty-four hours a day they have absolutely no time for themselves. When we think about time we think about hours but sometimes even five or ten minutes is enough time for you.
In order for you to go on and sustain healthy mental health you need to make time for yourself. A lot of people say ‘I have so much work, I don’t have time to think’ you do have time, you’re not making it. Use that five or ten minutes to do something you really like. In order to feel good about what you do, you need to feel good about yourself. You need to love yourself before you start trying to fix the world.
What are some of the issues you have come across related to mental health in the workplace and what advice would you give to helping deal with stress at work?
When it comes to mental health in the workplace, usually the issues that we see in the clinic are people who aren’t able to talk in front of their colleagues when giving presentations and the worry of the boss not liking what they’re doing, so again we go back to self-esteem. Stress and workload is one of the things we always hear our clients talk about and then we have clients who can’t say no at work.
I think to specify what you can do and what you can’t do is very important. You need to let your colleagues know your limit because if you go over your limit you will not feel good and if you don’t feel good you won’t be able to function and give good results. This is something that should be highlighted from the beginning.
Also, workplaces themselves should be made to be more relaxing. I’ve been proposing to companies to have a serene corner in the workplace where people can zone out. Even if it’s just for five minutes a day. When you find a place for staff at the workplace it’s usually very clinical, so I recommend that companies create an atmosphere where employees are working in an environment that’s comfortable and welcoming.
What is the biggest challenge you face in what you do?
The biggest challenges I face are with cases of abuse. As much as we have a good system there are still a lot of these cases happening. Often it is women who are getting abused, but the women are sometimes the issue because they don’t want to leave the cycle that they are used to. They feel that they are in a safe zone and they can’t leave and that is my biggest issue. They come to therapy, we tell them what they should do, but they go back.
This really used to stress me but then I got to a point where I thought, in the end, it’s her choice and she needs to decide when she’s ready to leave. The woman has to take that step. Every human is very different and as much as we help them they need to help themselves.
What is something that you would like to do that you haven’t done yet?
Opening the clinic was something that I’ve always wanted to do from when I was at university and thankfully I was able to open the first mental health clinic in the Sultanate of Oman. Then I wanted to create a retreat and I’m starting to do a day retreat in my clinic.
I’ve always had this thing about women’s shelters and that is something that I would love to materialise. Creating shelters to help women and children shelter from abuse. Other than that I think I am quite content with where I am right now.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
I would say my biggest achievement was actually opening the clinic as well as my awareness campaign “Not Alone.” These are two things that I am now known for in the region and I’ve gone to a lot of countries and talked about this campaign and what I do. This is a great thing because it spreads the idea. I’ve also been educating people inside and outside of Oman about mental health.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice what would it be?
I would tell my younger self you cannot save the world. For the longest time I wanted to fix everything and change the whole world and help everyone but I think it’s step by step. You can do what you can and you need to take it slow and enjoy the moment.
What is one thing we can do every day to make ourselves feel good?
Positive affirmations are very important. If we say one positive thing to ourselves every morning that will make such a difference. A moment of mindfulness every day will do magic. I have personally been practising mindfulness recently and I find it amazing. A lot of us don’t take the time to appreciate what we’ve done. Surround yourself with amazing people as well, that’s something that I totally believe in. As well as changing your routine, even if it’s something really small. Sometimes change doesn’t need to be really big to help with your mental health, something really small can make a difference.
What is the motto that you live by?
Change begins with you.