Moving to the Emirates? Give yourself peace of mind in your new home with our look at mental healthcare in the UAE.
If you’re moving to the United Arab Emirates, you’ll no doubt be excited to set up life in your glitzy new home. However, living and working in the desert can be challenging for new arrivals. For many expats, this can include mental health concerns. Indeed, those living abroad are often more susceptible to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and disconnection.
Thankfully the UAE has a well-funded healthcare system that can help you with mental health concerns. Although you may not be able to find all the services you would in your home country, you do have options. To help you understand the mental healthcare system in the United Arab Emirates, and how you can access help, we take a look at the following:
- Overview of mental health in the UAE
- Mental healthcare services in the UAE
- How to access mental health services in the UAE
- Insurance for mental healthcare in the UAE
- Psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists in the UAE
- Drug and alcohol services in the UAE
- Services dealing with eating disorders in the UAE
- Mental healthcare for people with severe mental health problems in the UAE
- Children and young people’s mental health in the UAE
- Mental healthcare services for special groups in the UAE
- Mental health prevention and education programs in the UAE
- Emergency support and crisis lines
- Useful resources
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COVID-19 in the UAE
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for everyone. Many expats find themselves separated from family and loved ones in their home countries. As a foreigner, it is also sometimes difficult to find critical information regarding coronavirus infection rates, local measures, and restrictions, and now, thankfully, vaccinations.
For general coronavirus health information in the UAE, including vaccination schedules and locations and the latest updates, see our article about COVID-19 in the UAE or visit the Emirates’ official COVID-19 online dashboard.
Overview of mental health in the UAE
Many people in the UAE experience mental health challenges. In fact, a 2020 study found that 57% of people in the UAE suffered from at least one mental health disorder; the two most common ones, at 56.4% and 31.5% of the population, were anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, beyond the stigma of seeking services, the mental health landscape in the UAE is not very robust. In fact, in 2017, the UAE had 1.65 psychiatrists per 100,000 population. As a comparison, in 2020 the USA – which has a shortage of mental health providers – had 16.6 psychiatrists per 100,000 population. The number of social workers and psychologists in the UAE is even lower.
Unfortunately, the lack of mental health support is felt in various ways. According to the Global Health Observatory Data Repository of the World Health Organization (WHO), the suicide mortality rate (per 100,000 population) of the UAE was 6.4 in 2019. And, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated things. In fact, a 2020 academic study on the psychological impact of COVID-19 in the UAE found more than a third of the population felt their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic.
Stigma surrounding mental health in the UAE
As is the case in many countries within the Arabic world, there is a significant taboo associated with issues of mental health and its treatment and care. This stigma means that many patients – and family members of patients – do not seek out the treatment needed.
However, attitudes are slowly starting to change in the UAE. According to a 2019 survey by YouGov, a vast majority (72%) would seek – or suggest seeking – professional help if they or a loved one were struggling with their mental health. Indeed, it’s notable that it wasn’t until November 2020 that the UAE, under landmark legal changes, finally decriminalized suicide and attempted suicide.
Mental healthcare services in the UAE
The UAE offers a good range of medical care within its healthcare system, including mental health services. Health services in the country are regulated at the Federal and Emirate levels and administered by various authorities, including:
- Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP)
- Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD)
- Dubai Health Authority (DHA) Emirates Health Authority (EHA)
Most mental health providers work out of clinics and attachments to hospitals. These sites host therapists, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Though the UAE hosts 18 hospitals, it only has one mental health hospital, Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital. Al Amal is a public hospital and expats can gain access, but they’ll need to pay fees.
Most other mental healthcare is provided through private clinics, many of which cater to expats. Throughout the UAE, and especially dotted in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, you’ll be able to find all sorts of mental healthcare: these include inpatient and outpatient care, addiction support, and counseling. Though there is still a significant stigma around receiving mental health support, public acceptance is growing, along with new and important mental health supports.
Mental healthcare initiatives in the UAE
In a bid to address growing concerns about mental health in the UAE, authorities have launched several initiatives. On World Mental Health Day in 2021, the Emirates Health Services (EHS) announced plans for a network of community mental health clinics for Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital in primary health care centers.
Furthermore, authorities have also launched a national campaign called “The National Campaign for Mental Support” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign aims to offer support and guidance through content posted on social media accounts. It also offers the chance for interested people to connect with virtual support groups.
How to access mental health services in the UAE
How you access mental health services in the UAE depends largely on whether you have public or private health insurance. However, for any health issue, it’s always a good idea to consult your family doctor first. They will have a good understanding of your medical history and be able to provide you with information on where to go next.
The public health system in the UAE caters to the local Emirati population. Free for Emiratis, most services are in Arabic and waitlists can be long. As such, most expats choose to rely on private healthcare for their physical and mental health needs.
If you’re looking for a mental health provider, the hardest part will be finding someone who is the right fit; so, spend some time thinking about things like what kind of treatment you’re seeking and what kind of therapist you’d work best with. Once you’ve got this clarity, begin your research process by asking around and browsing the internet for clinics. When you’ve found a few you’re interested in, reach out to the clinics directly to inquire whether they’re accepting new patients and what the process is for becoming a client. Clinics generally do not require referrals from your primary care doctor.
Be sure to ask whether they take your insurance and, if so, whether they can directly bill your insurance or whether you’ll need to pay upfront at each session and get reimbursed. Finally, be sure to ask if they have any discounts for multiple sessions, as sometimes regular clients can get a discount.
Insurance for mental healthcare in the UAE
The UAE has a mixed health insurance system, with both public and private insurance on offer. Public insurance grants access to government-funded hospitals and clinics, and mostly serves Emiratis. As an expat, depending on the Emirate – namely Dubai and Abu Dhabi – your employer may be required to provide private insurance for you and your family. Most employers provide private insurance to expats.
As an expat, if you’re seeking mental healthcare, your insurance may or may not cover those services. Be sure to read your policy to see whether you are wholly, partly, or not at all responsible for any costs of seeking mental healthcare. Unfortunately, paying for mental healthcare out-of-pocket is pricey; counseling sessions can range from AED 500 to AED 1,000 per session.
Many expats relocating to the United Arab Emirates prefer the peace of mind that comes with sorting our health insurance before arriving in the country. An international health insurance policy can ensure you have access to the best mental healthcare as soon as you land in the UAE.
Health insurance providers in the UAE
If you’re looking for private coverage in the UAE, there are a number of health insurance companies available. These include large multinational insurers that cater to the expat market, offering tailored policies that meet your needs. Health insurance providers in the UAE include:
You can compare private health insurance providers in the UAE and get free quotes on our special health insurance page.
Psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists in the UAE
It’s important to know the differences between different mental health providers so that you can determine which would best suit your needs. Keep in mind that all three of these mental health providers can operate out of hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices. Here are some distinctions:
Psychologists study human behavior and mental, emotional, and cognitive processes. These professionals can diagnose and treat learning disabilities, behavioral challenges, and mental disorders, as well as help manage addiction. Psychologists are not medical doctors, so they cannot prescribe medication.
Psychiatrists also study behavioral, emotional, and mental challenges. However, they do so with a focus on diagnosing mental disorders and on chemical imbalances in the brain. Because psychiatrists are medical doctors, they can prescribe psychoactive drugs.
Therapists are trained to diagnose and treat mental illness. This is done through various kinds of therapy, such as play therapy, talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and more. Therapists focus on assisting people who struggle to cope with mental illness, trauma, or a particularly challenging life event.
Accessing treatment in the UAE
For expats, the journey to finding a mental health provider will almost exclusively involve the private sector. Public mental health treatment provides many challenges for Western expats, such as a language barrier and long wait times, so most expats turn to private clinics. Fortunately, referrals are rarely necessary, so once you find a clinic you’re interested in, reach out to them. As it can vary, be sure to ask what forms of therapy they offer, whether you can choose or change your provider, and how many of their providers speak English or your native language.
For the first appointment, make sure to bring your Emirates ID, your health insurance card, and a form of payment. You can expect to conduct an intake, either with your therapist, or an intake coordinator. Here, you will review some of the concerns that brought you to the clinic as well as discuss your psychological history. Then, they might suggest a treatment plan or what they would like to focus on in sessions together.
They should also review what your insurance covers (if any) and what you’ll be expected to pay for each session. While here, try to figure out if you feel comfortable with this provider and clinic and whether you’d like to keep returning.
How to access English-speaking psychiatrists, therapists, and psychologists in the UAE
The good news is that English-speaking mental health providers are not difficult to find in the UAE. This is because English is a lingua-franca within the expat community and because therapy is a little less taboo in Western expat spaces. So, when you’re researching clinics, if they have an English website, there’s a high likelihood they have English-speaking providers. Keep in mind that many clinics may be working with people remotely. Be sure to ask around within your expat circles for recommendations. And, if that hasn’t yielded anything, here are a few good places to start:
- Therapy Route: Helps you find therapists and psychiatrists within a specific area. You can see their name, photo, and any specialties they work in
- Life Works: Dubai-based mental-health provider offering therapy, grief counselling, parenthood support, and more
- Lighthouse Arabia: Dubai-based provider that treats adults, couples, children, and adolescents
- Naya Clinics: Abu-Dhabi-based provider that provides therapy, marriage counselling, life-coaching and more
Drug and alcohol services in the UAE
Drug and alcohol laws
Though the UAE is typically seen as the most liberal country in the Arabian Gulf, attitudes toward drugs and alcohol remain disapproving. Drinking alcohol is legal if you do so in a licensed restaurant or bar, or in your private home. Non-Muslims can buy alcohol in restaurants, bars, or in the plentiful liquor stores dotted throughout all Emirates, except Sharjah, which is dry. Drug use, however, is not allowed; producing, possessing, selling, or using narcotic or psychotropic drugs (without a prescription) is a criminal offense in the UAE.
According to a WHO paper published in 2018, there were 105 alcohol-attributable deaths per 100, 000 population. Another research paper highlighted that the main substance of use in the UAE is alcohol (41%) , followed by heroin (16%), marijuana (11%), Benzodiazepines (6%), inhalants (2%), amphetamines (2%). Prescription drugs like Tramadol, Methadone, and codeine, sedatives such as Xanax and Valium, and substances like Kemadrine, Artane, and Khat added to the remaining 20%.
Substance abuse and treatment
Despite the loosening laws on alcohol consumption, drug and alcohol use – and misuse – is still heavily stigmatized in the UAE. As such, it is impossible to get truly accurate numbers on substance abuse in the Emirates. Studies show that substance abuse is generally low in the UAE but rising. Additionally, keep in mind that the UAE hosts two completely different populations: Emiratis who are Muslim and whose faith may affect their relationship with substances; and expats, many of whom are from the West and may have a lot of disposable income and very different relationships to substances. Though hard numbers aren’t available, the number of people seeking addiction treatment in the UAE since the pandemic has risen greatly.
Due to the stigma, treatment facilities in the UAE have to prioritize confidentiality. Usually, you simply need to reach out to the facility and request an assessment; then, they will advise you on next steps. You’ll also need to ask about fee structures as many are free for Emiratis but not for expats. Here are a few options for those seeking help:
- The National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) – based in Abu Dhabi.
- Erada Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation – based in Dubai
- Alcoholics Anonymous UAE – meetings in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Sharjah, Al Ruwais, and Ras al Khaimah
Helpines for addication in the UAE
The following dedicated helplines are also helpful for people living with alcohol and substance addictions:
- Al-Anon Family Group – UAE – 0551188532
- ACA Dubai (Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families) – 0504572564
- Narcotics Anonymous – UAE – 0501106898 (Female helpline) & 0501310055 (Male helpline)
- Alateen Family Support Groups – 0522689042
Services dealing with eating disorders in the UAE
An eating disorder is a mental health condition that manifests as unhealthy eating habits. Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating. They are typically more common among young women and teenagers, although can affect people of all ages and genders.
There are no definitive, society-wide studies of eating disorder prevalence in the UAE; however, eating disorders are a growing problem in the Middle East. In fact, a study surveying the wider region showed that Arabs from the UAE were at the highest risk of developing an eating disorder. In fact, researchers in Ajman found that the risk for high school Emirati girls of developing an eating disorder had more than doubled between 2014 and 2017.
If you, or someone you love, are struggling with an eating disorder in the UAE, please know that there is support. Most expats would rather go to a private clinic but there are a few public options. A referral may need to come from your primary care doctor, so be sure to check with the individual clinic about this. Also, be sure to ask if they take your insurance.
There are a number of private clinics and hospitals in the UAE. These provide expert eating disorder treatment, many on a flexible outpatient basis. Here are a few good options:
- Priory Wellbeing Centres (Dubai and Abu Dhabi
- The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre (Dubai)
- Camali Clinic in Dubai (Dubai)
- Thrive Wellbeing Center (Dubai)
- American Center of Psychiatry and Neurology (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Al Ain).
Mental healthcare for people with severe mental health problems in the UAE
In the UAE, psychiatric services are mainly delivered at outpatient clinics in general hospitals and polyclinics. Typically, primary care facilities play a limited role. A few hospitals in the UAE can admit patients with severe mental health problems. However, there is a substantial shortage of beds in many of those public and private hospitals.
Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital in Dubai is the oldest and the only dedicated government hospital in the UAE that solely deals with mental health and has an inpatient care facility. There is a 24/7 emergency service and the helpline number for general calls is 8008877.
The WHO Mental Health ATLAS 2017 highlighted that the UAE’s psychiatric facilities include 25 psychiatric beds in general hospitals and 80 in specialized units. This is equivalent to 0.9 hospital beds per 100 000 people. This is significantly lower than other Arab countries like Morocco (4.1 beds per 100,000) and many Western countries, including the UK (23.9 beds per 100,000) and the USA (18.6 beds per 100,000).
Children and young people’s mental healthcare in the UAE
The visibility of children’s mental health services in the UAE has grown in recent years. According to a peer-reviewed academic paper published in 2020, between 17% and 22% of youth suffer from depressive symptoms in the UAE. These problems include anxiety, stress, depression, and many more.
If you’re living in the UAE with children, you’ll be pleased to know the dependents of expats or foreigners are eligible for public healthcare. However, many opt for a comprehensive wellness and family healthcare package with their insurance providers. In fact, many private mental health clinics have dedicated child psychology programs and staff.
The referral process will depend on where you are seeking services. Some clinics may require a referral from a primary care doctor, while some may allow direct bookings. So, be sure to do your research and ask your questions.
Unfortunately, there are no state-wide mental health assessments conducted on young people as they move through the education system in the UAE. International schools will usually have guidance counselors trained to spot worrying signs, or may run mental health campaigns, but this will depend on the school. So, it’s important for parents to keep a close eye on their little ones and to find support when necessary.
The Al Jalila Children’s Speciality Hospital in Dubai, the first dedicated children’s hospital in the UAE, has a special child and adolescent mental health center, as well as an Eating Disorder Unit. The pediatric departments at SEHA hospitals in Abu Dhabi also have special units for child psychiatry, a daycare facility, a secure forensic psychiatry facility, and a unit for addiction disorders.
Mental healthcare services for special groups in the UAE
For senior citizens living in the UAE, there is a specialized treatment unit for inpatient mental health at Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital in Dubai. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi’s SEHA has specialized psychiatric mobile clinics to provide senior citizens with mental health treatment at their homes. They also offer many services to senior citizens like specialized clinics and treatments for chronic ailments.
The Abu Dhabi Rehabilitation Centre in Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC) is the only center that provides specialized care for the elderly in Abu Dhabi city. This includes psychotherapy, family counseling, and integration into society.
For patients with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, the DHA introduced a unique concept called the Memory Café in September 2021. The cafe is actually a support group that meets regularly at the Seniors’ Happiness Centre of the DHA. The patients, along with their families, can come together every month to its informal and relaxed setting and get encouraged for active participation and conversations.
Mental healthcare prevention and education programs in the UAE
Zulekha Hospital, with its branches in Dubai and Sharjah, runs a mental wellbeing program called “Happy Minds”. The goal of the program is to destigmatize those with mental health problems and help them feel more comfortable with seeking professional assistance. They also run a free consultation service that can be booked on their web portal.
There is also a ‘Mental Health Journalism Fellowship’ that promotes the publication of quality discussion around mental illness encouraging awareness and acceptance of a stigmatized hidden condition. Al Jalila Foundation awards the fellowship to three Emirati journalists to support the spreading of awareness of mental health, reduce stigma and end discrimination against those with mental illness within the UAE.
Emergency support and crisis lines
There are many different emergency numbers in the UAE, but the following numbers are directly related to mental healthcare:
- MoHAP hotline (04-5192519) – A mental support hotline, available from 9 AM to 9 PM, from Sunday to Thursday,
- The Istijaba call center (8001717) – Provides 24/7 support in Arabic and English through the toll-free number.
For Abu Dhabi residents, there is a hotline of 800 937292 to boost the mental health of workers during the Covid-19 pandemic as part of its ‘You Matter’ campaign. It’s being run by the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis, and Disasters Committee for the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Department of Community Development.
In addition to these services, there are a number of other helplines you can access should you need them. These include national suicide and crisis lines, such as:
- 24/7 police helpline – 999
- 24/7 ambulance helpline – 998
- Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital – 800-11111
- Rashid Hospital – Dubai – 042192000
- UAE Suicide Prevention (Only for Indian expats) – 8004634
Another dedicated hotline where any resident or an expat/foreigner can reach for telephonic consultancy over COVID-19 related psychological concerns and anxieties is UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention’s 04-5192519. This mental support hotline is available from 9 AM to 9 PM, from Sunday to Thursday.
Here are some of the prominent governmental healthcare websites in the UAE:
- Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP)
- Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD)
- Dubai Health Authority (DHA)
- Thiqa program – The UAE’s public healthcare system.
- Amal Counsel – A non-profit organization that offers emotional health and guidance on the values of hope, care, and gratitude.
- Mental Health – An online platform that provides services, information, and resources to create awareness and end the stigma surrounding Mental Health in the UAE.