Bridging Gaps: By Connecting Mental Health Providers In The UAE, MindForce Is Seeking To Create A More Cohesive Ecosystem For Patients

Bridging Gaps: By Connecting Mental Health Providers In The UAE, MindForce Is Seeking To Create A More Cohesive Ecosystem For Patients

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It doesn’t take too keen an observation to realize that the conversations surrounding mental health in the UAE -particularly within the business landscape- have taken a positive turn. And if you assume such a shift is a natural consequence of the post-pandemic world, then think again.

In June 2019, much before the COVID-19 crisis would steer the mental health discourse to a whole new plane, the UAE government had introduced the National Wellbeing Strategy 2031, which aimed to introduce initiatives that improve the physical and mental health of the country’s residents. But beyond achieving increased awareness about mental health, the UAE has another roadblock to clear: a fragmented industry. And that is where UAE-based mental health entity MindForce enters the picture.

“MindForce originally started by helping individuals with mental health problems, particularly helping people with issues such as addiction and marriage problems,” Simon Walker, co-founder and Managing Director of MindForce, says. “But I quickly realized that it was a much bigger issue than that. I saw MindForce being a glue in the mental health arena, wherein we can join up people in mental health service provision, psychiatrists, insurers, as well as the media. This is precisely what is needed right now: for stakeholders to join up and talk to each other, but also specifically be able to help patients in the UAE.”

According to Walker, a disconnected mental health ecosystem can be equally as dangerous as a society that isn’t aware about mental illnesses. “Unfortunately, nobody [within the industry] knows who’s doing what,” Walker laments. “Entities are competing with each other, and there’s no cohesion. All of this ultimately sends a very mixed message to the end patients. I think it’s very confusing for anyone who comes needing help and so therefore, I think there’s significant value in matching an individual to the right support.”

MindForce works across two verticals: individual support, which helps people get the right advice, medication and support in a cost-effective way, and workplace support, which is catered specifically towards work-induced mental health issues. To achieve this, first and foremost, MindForce has partnered with a number of UAE-based medical entities including Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital, Saudi German Hospital, Reverse Psychology (a mental health clinic that offers psychological support), and Aspris (a health and wellbeing center).

“We also have a partnership with a mental health clinic called LifeWorks in Al Wasl, Dubai,” Walker adds. “MindForce has connections with a number of providers- from holistic health centers, to hospitals and psychiatrists. In fact, there are seven or eight psychiatry clinics that MindForce is connected with. Each one, however, has its own particular skill set, its own mix, and its own cultural components,which can take a patient quite a long time to understand and choose from. But because the MindForce team understands all of the players in the field, when people come with a particular issue, we’re much more informed to point them in the right direction. It is a very connected relationship, which enables the mental health providers to open their doors to people much more quickly.”

Built as a not-for-profit enterprise, Walker reveals that he spends money out of his pocket to keep MindForce running as he is yet to find funding partners for his enterprise. But to understand what keeps Walker forging ahead, it is perhaps important to first take a look at his unconventional journey towards becoming a part of the mental health ecosystem. Having been a former solicitor in England as well as Hong Kong, and a registered foreign lawyer at the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), Walker is the Founding Partner and Chairman of UAE-based law firm Skyewalker Law. But a background in the legal field didn’t deter him from eventually entering a space that he had long been personally interested in.

“25 years ago, when I was still in London, I myself suffered from a period of depression,” Walker recalls. “I went to my psychiatrist, who suggested I go on medicine, but I firmly refused to do so. At that point, he said, ‘Well, if I told you that 70% of my patients in the city of London are on medicine, would that help you?’ And I thought to myself that this really is quite a prevailing problem. Then, unfortunately in my history, my father took his own life 15 years ago, which reinstilled my particular strong interest in -and I think understanding of- the broader mental health arena. Finally, 18 months ago, with MindForce, I felt it was time to make my mark in the world of mental health, and see if I could make a change. My law firm, Skyewalker Law, was going quite well, and so I decided that I was actually going to do this, and try to make a difference.”

Related: Staying Sane In The Startup World: How Tech Entrepreneurs Can Maintain Their Mental Wellbeing

Having thus started on MindForce, Walker has also gone on to find allies in his pursuit. Acting as stalwarts of the MindForce movement are two formidable names from the UAE government: the Dubai Police, and Dubai Health Authority (DHA). “I had the benefit of being supported by the Dubai Police and the DHA, which meant that I wasn’t seen as just some guy talking on LinkedIn,” Walker says. “And so, there was a chance to actually make a change in the environment. I felt that with their help, and my legal structured thinking, as well as having an empathetic mindset, I might be able to do something a bit different in the mental health arena.”

Simon Walker, co-founder and Managing Director, MindForce. Source: MindForce

Now, one might wonder what role the Dubai Police has in the world of mental health. After all, the government body isn’t the first name to be associated with the topic- but the truth is far from it, Walker says. “I think that the police have an ever increasing role to play,” Walker explains. “They were put in charge of dealing with people at the coalface, so to speak, in mental health. For example, it is the police that often have to deal with people who’ve had a breakdown on the streets. Moreover, the Dubai Police is an Emirati organization, and so they understand the Emirati way, but they have to look after hundreds of nationalities. With a growth in mental health issues in the UAE, they have put together a federal level taskforce, created a strategy, and also developed a health helpline. But they still value the input of different people in different interest groups to help them drive things forward altogether.”

It is precisely the initiative shown by the Dubai Police that has proven to be a major catalyst for MindForce. “I would say that the police here, despite some of the cultural and international difficulties, have made more progress than in many arenas within mental health,” Walker adds. “I think that Dubai actually in that way almost has an opportunity to become a global leader in mental health, which is one of the things that makes me ambitious in my role.” Walker’s hopes for the Dubai, and the UAE as a whole, may seem lofty, but it comes during a “tipping point” for the country’s mental health system. A study by the World Health Organization shows that between 2017 and 2020 alone, the number of patients in the UAE seeking help for mental health problems increased at least six-fold. Moreover, a 2022 study by German market analyst Kenkou that assessed mental health provision across 50 countries, showed that for every 100,000 of UAE’s population, there are only 0.77 psychologists.

“Every culture, every country has its own particular issues, but I would say that in Dubai, there’s one key word, which is both the strongest cause, and the strongest problem, and that is loneliness,” Walker says. “One one hand, you’ve got an expatriate population without family. But on the other hand, you’ve also got people who are very driven by business success, and a social culture that can sometimes be quite superficial. And I think all of it has driven a loneliness problem now. If you look at mental health, yes, we can talk about depression, obesity, problems with family and children, and the like. But loneliness is perhaps the overarching factor, and I think also because Dubai is relatively more financially ambitious, people feel a great pressure to appear successful… to have all of the trappings to meet the expectations of their family. But actually underneath that, there’s perhaps a slight emptiness, and I think that causes a sort of loneliness, and an isolation.”

Now, while Walker’s observations are about the masses, there is one demographic within the UAE that almost certainly is plagued with the issue of loneliness: entrepreneurs. Plenty of global studies have highlighted that there is a mental health crisis within the startup ecosystem, with loneliness cited as one of the most commonly faced consequences of choosing the entrepreneurial life. “I would say that as an entrepreneur, you have to prioritize giving yourself time and space and peace, as much as you prioritize growing your business or billing or hiring or getting new clients!” Walker says. “In my experience as an entrepreneur myself, one of the keywords is ‘focus.’ You have to focus on what you’re doing, and know exactly what your targets are. You can’t throw too much bread on the water. But you need to also be very determined, and focused about your own mental health and your wellbeing. On the flip side, businesses are now seeing very clearly that they can lose an awful lot of money if they don’t look after their staff. We’ve already seen what happened with ‘The Great Resignation,’ and we’re seeing what can happen when the Gen Z workforce is very disenchanted.”

Indeed, a June 2022 study by PwC Middle East shows that untreated mental illness in the GCC results in at least 37.5 million productive working days -equivalent to US$3.5 billion- lost annually. “As a CEO, I have always understood that employee engagement, employee happiness, organizational happiness makes the business work better, and I’ve thought that for 30 years,” Walker adds. “But now, I think that is all coming to the fore. Businesses are discovering that if they don’t look after people, and don’t offer the mental health support that they should be providing, employees are either going to go elsewhere, or are just not going to give the effort that they should. So, in a sort of slightly perverse way, the crisis that has followed on from the COVID-19 pandemic -or accelerated from the pandemic- has actually also accelerated a thought process that I’ve long thought should have been engaged with.”

As Walker now equips himself and MindForce for the journey ahead, he reiterates that if there is any place that can champion the mental health cause -both for individuals and workplaces- it is Dubai. “Dubai is a leader in so many methods of thought, and it is already leading on blockchain, metaverse, and other emerging technologies,” he says. “Now, bear in mind that an awful lot of the solutions in mental health can be technology-based. In fact, it’s proven that almost 80% of mental health issues can be dealt with by a chatbot or an artificial intelligence platform. So, if we’re at the forefront of that sort of technology in Dubai, then not only can we provide better mental health solutions, but we can also be a global thought leader in this space. If Dubai Crown Prince H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum believes the metaverse is going to be worth huge amounts of billions by 2030, when there aren’t many leaders who’ve even had the vision to even start thinking about the metaverse, then I don’t think there’s really any particular limit to what we could achieve in it.”

Related: Destigmatizing Conversations Around Mental Health At Your Workplace: The How-To

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