Mental health, and the diagnosis, care, and treatment of psychological distress remains one of the few areas of healthcare to which, in this society at least, there lingers an element of social stigma. It is sad to acknowledge this is still true. For years now there has been a growth in awareness of the need to consider one’s mental health and the positive effect talk therapy can bring to almost any situation we might face in life. Modern life has brought added stress to all but a very few of us. We met and talked with Clinical Therapist, William Schuilenberg, at Kuwait’s Soor Center for Professional Therapy & Assessment to find out more.
MP: Firstly, perhaps, we should address what remains of the perceived ‘stigma’ towards any discussion or admission of mental health issues. Why do you think these persist in the region today?
WS:Primarily because people haven’t learned that the term ‘mental health’ can cover anything from schizophrenia to relationship issues, and secondly, the lack of general, public education about psychology. Although our therapists at the Center work with the broadest range of psychological needs, in the main the clients that we see here do not necessarily have deep-rooted psychological problems, but rather, are deeply stressed from dealing with the cost of being human. Such things as grief, depression, anxiety, social fears, performance anxiety, and conflict are all a part of life, but they can cause big problems in our lives. The benefit of counselling is the opportunity learn new coping skills, process the internal chaos, and face the future with equilibrium and resources.
MP: The increased openness of society towards a willingness to seek counselling is surely a huge step forward.
WS:Absolutely. Even in the short time I’ve been in Kuwait there have been measurable changes in both attitude and opportunity. This is due in part, I think, to better understanding generally of the benefit of addressing mental health issues, and the other part is the increase in available professionals who offer a wide range of therapeutic options. That’ a really good thing. A final factor of perhaps greater influence is that more people are finding their lives increasingly demanding, and they are struggling to find the internal resilience and resources to cope. Independent studies have demonstrated that accessing therapy as a part of self-care is a successful way to maximize life satisfaction.
MP: You’ve mentioned increased stress a few times now. Are there specific reasons for this increase?
WS: I think this is true no matter where we live but quite simply, Kuwait is a psychologically draining place. It is emotionally, physically, and mentally draining to live here, for a number of reasons. Kuwait is a city which provides little in the way of natural escape - people’s relaxation time is invariably spent in unnatural and man-made venues and situations. Driving here is getting progressively more stressful. Even being forced regularly to participate in the “Parking Lotto” that normally occurs at the end of what should be a ‘quick errand’ can elevate our stress to a higher level than we can easily tolerate.
MP: You’re talking about simple everyday tasks; seemingly small tasks, but they can all add - perhaps without us knowing - to our stress levels and may produce a change in behaviour?
WS: That’s right. Alone these are small details, but their cumulative effect can wear a person out. If you add a significant event - even a positive one - we may find ourselves emotionally and psychologically exhausted, overwhelmed, and the consequence can be depression, anger, avoidance, forgetfulness, concentration problems, terminal procrastination, or a desire to “check out.”
MP: How does the pressure of living in our city manifest itself? We don’t typically see people smashing cars because they can’t find parking. I guess the stress shows itself in other areas of our lives?
WS: Certainly the thing I’ve observed is that relationships can become more strained. It is often particularly difficult for newcomers to Kuwait. They will have left behind a familiar landscape of life and work, and then find themselves in Kuwait where things are all done rather differently than at home - be that Europe, North America, or even other parts of the Arab world. Work pressures here can be extreme - there is the sense of disconnection from your roots and all that is familiar. Furthermore, maybe the way your relationship has functioned is forced to change to conform to cultural and social norms. Therefore, on top of all the other things you need to adjust, the “we” of your primary anchor to all that’s familiar (your relationship) also changes. And sometimes in ways that cause conflict, disconnection, and isolation. I’ve observed this to be true no matter the country of origin. For Kuwaitis, the strain is caused by the effort to integrate the traditions and social customs of their culture with the demands of living in a global world. Different source, same stress.
MP: How would you work with someone who comes to you in such a situation? How are you going to fix it for them?
WS:It’s absolutely vital for your readers to understand therapists don’t “fix” anything or anyone. What we do is help our clients identify resources they may have overlooked, gain a sense of perspective about the problem(s), and finally, take responsibility for the things that can be changed; the things in their lives that they do control. This is very important. At the same time we look at self-care. What they are doing to protect their own mental health. What do they do for fun? How are they communicating and interacting with those around them? Understanding how they can care for themselves is a huge step towards making sense of their situation. There are things people can do to ease their situations - but they often feel under so much pressure that they don’t see it. This is where the objective observations and professional training and experience of a good therapist makes a difference.
MP: Let’s say you have a client who’s in his 40s, running a company, perhaps he’s doing well, but he’s just struggling to cope with the balance of business and family pressures. What would you say to him? Are you going to tell him to give up his business?
WS:The path to a solution may be different in every situation. I’ll never ‘tell’ him to do anything. In looking at all the options, it may become clear to him that ‘flipping over the Monopoly board’ and starting again is the right thing to do. My client would decide for himself based on his recognition of all his available choices and the outcome he desires. We not here to tell people what to do with their lives, but instead we challenge them about the truth of their life. What are the objective, observable facts? What facts are they ignoring or overlooking? We use our discussion to bring out a lot of what they already know about themselves, but may not recognize.
Bill and his fellow therapists at the Soor Center are not going to provide a gift-wrapped prescription for the problems in your life, but they most certainly can help you identify the resources you can apply to resolving the strress and distress. No quick fix, no sticking plaster to heal a decades-old mental scar - rather, a confidential, listening ear and non-judgmental support in a quest for equilibrium and joy in life.
The Soor Center provides individual, couples, child and family counselling for a broad range of personal health and emotional issues including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, marital issues, phobias, obsessive compulsive behaviour, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, educational problems, and other challenges of modern life.
First Published in Men's Passion Issue #26 November 2010