Dr. Mohammed AlSuweidan
Courtesy of Dr. Mohammed AlSuweidan

Dr. Mohammad Alsuwaidan is an assistant professor of psychiatry at both Kuwait University and the University of Toronto, Canada, where he is cross-appointed to the divisions of Brain Therapeutics and Philosophy, Humanities and Educational Scholarship. He is also the Head of the Mental Health Unit at Mubarak Al-Kabeer Hospital – Kuwait’s largest academic medical center. He is also the medical director of Alsuwaidan Clinic, a leading regional private mental health center based in Kuwait.

We were extremely fortunate to have the chance to speak to Dr. Mohammad, who gladly welcomed Empower Magazine to approach him to speak on mental health in the Middle East.

Dr. Mohammad is also widely known for his highly engaging social media presence, pursuing great efforts in delivering high-quality content to Arabs in both, Arabic and English, to help change social stigmas around the heavily misinterpreted topic of mental illnesses and diseases.

Dr. Mohammad Alsuwaidan on Social Media

As we opened the conversation with Dr. Mo Alsuwaidan, congratulating his highly impactful social media initiatives, his response was fairly accurate on social media, dictating that, “it’s a job on its own.”

Dr. Mo often referred to it as “a tool that can be used to “eventually really change hearts and minds.” 

While, certainly, there may be many uses for social media, we dived into the conversation of how social media can negatively affect user’s mental health. 

On this particular, Dr. Mo explains that “social media has 2 sides and what tends to get more focus is negative, however, that isn’t always necessarily true. There are several parts to how it affects users negatively. It causes some people to live in perpetual states of low self-esteem, regret or envy – because seeing how polished celebrities, influencers, etc. On there, they never a bad hair day, bad family incident – everything looks perfect and we know that isn’t simply a true reality. There’s a part of those people’s lives, just like any other that doesn’t get captured when things go wrong.”

Dr. Mohammad Alsuwaidan also adds, “the internet, so to speak, has become an addiction for many and it’s very surprising that the American psychiatric association did not include it in last diagnostic manual report.”

On the Contrary…

“On the positive side, there are many great uses and initiatives, like yours, the magazine, breaking down barriers, breaking down stigmas, and for someone who has gone through depression, anxiety; social media can be what makes them realize there is hope out there,” Dr. Mo Alsuwaidan tells Ally Salama, the founder of Empower Mag via call.

Touching on many great points, Dr. Alsuwaidan highlights more on the matter, “With social media, we can reach out to anyone instantly, instead of waiting for weeks for responses via older methods of communication. Interconnectivity between people virtually may have not existed beforehand. Many now meet on social media and form support groups, share all sorts of great resources together. With e-forums, virtual meetings, and many other huge advantages, I think it’s very easy to say social media has a very negative effect on users. It’s really a double-edged sword.”

Dr. Mohammad Alsuwaidan Portatit Office

We asked Dr. Mo if there were any trends relating to genders we commonly see in mental health around the Arab region.

“The problems we see in the Arab world are global mental health epidemics and not just here in the middle east. We see depression and anxiety significantly more common in females and addiction a lot more, in the male gender. We also see certain personality disorders – like- antisocial disorder, conduct disorder, an impulsive hyperactive disorder common in males.”

Dr. Mo raised an important underlying factor, arguably the most important to be open in discussions and roundtables. “The common misconception in eastern societies, in general, is the notion of talking about one’s emotions is a weakness which should not be done at any cost. Males tend to hold their emotions in guarding it at all costs.

The repression of emotion leads to somatization, which is when emotions into physical symptoms and sensations. Often males will refer to their physical symptoms to doctors and before you realize it, their condition is actually psychological. They have gotten used to blocking any emotions to their conscious yet the physical manifestation of the mental illnesses remains.”

Throughout our conversation, we mentioned how displaying emotions must be essential for a great wellbeing. “Divorce weakness from talking about emotions,” Dr. Mo asserts.

The Power of Influence

Furthermore, a point worth noting from Dr. Alsuwaidan’s discussion must be the power of influence through celebrities and influencers throughout our communities. “I remember being in Toronto around Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk campaign, [multi-year program designed to break the silence around mental illness and support mental health all across Canada] when they brought celebrities and hockey players, as well as other athletes to publically share their stories. Some had their face on black and white on billboards on the subway, saying I went through addiction and etc. That was very powerful,” says Dr. Mo. 

Celebrities in the Middle East, like Ahmed Helmy and Mona Zaki, have historically been key players in social causes, who are currently UNICEF Egypt’s Ambassadors. It is through people pertaining to such influence, in the sustainable long-run – advocating and speaking up for mental health victims that will truly create a shift in perception of how we view mental health and illness.

Combatting the Common Misconception

Alongside using influential acts to help shift perceptions of people in the Arab world, there is a common misconception Dr. Mohammad Alsuwaidan points out that must be addressed and tackled for the sake our collective wellbeing:

“Things like occult part of religion, shaytan [satan], 7asad [malicious envy], jin [beings that are concealed from the senses, se7r [magic], el 3ein [the evil eye]…I highly doubt every three minutes someone is being possessed by jin. While we are Muslim and do believe in their occurrence, they are extremely rare whereas mental illness is extremely common. For example, if a break up happens in a marriage because it’s an addiction problem and keeping to try cure the [hasad] – that wouldn’t really do any help,” explains Dr. Mo.

At Empower, we find that most challenges adolescence face leading to mental health disorders are due to misconceptions like the above, as the majority of parents’ aren’t well equipped nor educated about mental health-related illnesses nor on vital wellness mechanisms.

‏الفرق بين الطبيب النفسي والمعالج النفسي مع استشاري الطب النفسي دكتور محمد السويدان
Dr. Mohammad explains the difference between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist.

How can we Empower Arabs Towards a Deeper Understanding of Mental Health?

“The key thing is education,” Dr. Mo assures us. “We can we start through education through social media and mags and eventually nations pick it up and it becomes a part of the system.”

Earlier on when we spoke to Dina Tuqan of New York City’s Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling, she also mentioned that “On a structural level, there’s so much work that can be done, especially starting with schools and universities offering mental health services to students, for example.”

Future Efforts

Empower Magazine is currently preparing to launch the Middle East’s first region-wide mental health education program for institutions, The “By Us For Us” fundraiser, which will be accompanied by limited stock merchandise, will help raise funds to raise awareness in institutions around the Middle East. The Fundraiser is due to kick off sometime in September.

With highly engaging professionals like Dr. Mohammad Alsuwaidan on social media and campaigns as such mentioned above, we are optimistic that during the next upcoming year we see a noticeable shift in the Middle East’s perception on Mental Health.

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