How Emirati Shamma Alkhaja used art to cope with depression
By Dr. Saliha Afridi, PsyD (US) on 26/05/2016

I felt the pain build up in inside my chest every time I cried, all my sadness and sorrow gathered in one place.

“The pain in my chest took over my heart, my mind, my personality. I am trapped.

“I am aware of my weakness now. All that I have been through, all of these years made me stronger. I learnt how to cope with my struggles. I live. I no longer dream about living.”

These are the words of an ­Emirati woman who has stepped out of the darkness that’s consumed her for the past 15 years to help others, through her art.

Shamma Alkhaja is a Zayed ­University graphic-design graduate, who as part of her final-term project, wrote and illustrated two books about her fight with depression.

“I did this because most people are ashamed that they have depression. I was the same: always afraid of telling people I had it,” says the 25-year-old, whose books are on display at a graduate art exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat. “I had to battle myself out of depression to achieve this. Creating my books is like a start for me – I want to make other books on other people and show that every person is different.”

Her first book is called How I Won My Battle, which details her story of dealing with depression, while the accompanying book, How You Can WinYour Battle, is an informative guide to seeking help.

“I have had really good reactions [to them],” Alkhaja says. “There was a French woman [who didn’t speak much English] who told me she related to my drawings. It was really emotional for me doing this for other people.”

World Health Organization statistics show that between 1990 and 2013, the number of people globally suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50 per cent, from 416 million to 615 ­million. This month is World Mental Health Awareness month.

Husam Abdelkhaleq, a senior student counsellor at Zayed University, says more students are showing depression-related symptoms. “Depression is a disturbance in mood that makes people feel particularly unhappy, discouraged, lonely or negative,” Abdelkhaleq says. “It may range from mild to severe depending upon the associated symptoms and the extent the condition interferes with everyday functioning.”

He says there are many contributing factors. “Bad life experiences and certain personality patterns such as difficulty handling stress, low-self-esteem or extreme pessimism about the future can increase the chances of becoming depressed.”

From a young age, Alkhaja was made to feel like there was something wrong with her. As a 10-year-old, she was bullied incessantly by her fourth-grade classmates, and it was this abuse that changed the view she had of herself and her outlook on the world.

“I was kind of a lonely girl,” ­Alkhaja admits. “There were two girls who were very cruel to me – they were always picking on me, on my clothes and my nationality. Everyone kind of hated me because of what they were saying. At the time, we were learning how to pray and learning about Islam, and these girls were telling me, saying: ‘You don’t pray well, your parents didn’t raise you well’. I didn’t really receive any good comments. There was always negativity on me.”

While most of the damage was done at school, there was no escaping the hurt at home, either. “I have three older brothers who were always naughty and always teasing me, so I didn’t get a rest from being laughed at or picked on. I felt like maybe there was something wrong with me. My personality really changed that year, and the depression started. It kind of grew up with me,” she admits, saying that she subsequently became reclusive.

“I kind of created my own world,” she says. “I have a very big imagination, so I would just be in my room – I would daydream of living my own life, of becoming an artist or writer. I was always writing new stories and drawing.”

Art as therapy for mental illness is one of the ways that sufferers deal with their problems. It can be used in consultation with a trained therapist, or as Alkhaja has done, as a more personal creative outlet.

Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia, says there are many therapies that can help ­alleviate the symptoms of depression, and different people react differently to them. “Some people are better able to express themselves using methods other than traditional talk-­therapy,” the Dubai-based therapist says, adding that clients often report that externalising their difficulties by putting them on canvas/paper helps make them more manageable. “There is also a cathartic effect of being able to create something while you are expressing your pain.”

This is just what Alkhaja has done, and now she is using it to help others, too.

In February, the Federal National Council put mental health on the agenda by requesting the acceleration of a planned psychiatric health law. In addition, it recommended that psychiatric services should be readily available, there should be a psychiatric clinic in every hospital and well-being skills should be taught in schools.

Talking publicly about depression and related conditions hasn’t always been acceptable, however, and is still a challenge now, especially culturally, says Alkhaja.

“It’s another reason why I did this project,” she says. “I was searching for a campaign that maybe the Government did, but I didn’t find anything. I found some in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but not here. I found a conference that Sheikh Nahyan [bin Mubarak] did back in 2014, but it wasn’t something ­personal.

“A lot of people think that depression can only be treated by praying and reading the Quran. They do relax the mind and body, and make you meditate and forget your problems for a while. However, it may not solve the main problem. Some types of depression need treatment either by medication or therapy,” she says. “People think that if someone goes to a medical clinic, there must be something wrong with them – ­maybe she won’t get married – so they always deny it and hide away from it.”

Afridi says there are two barriers to treatment of people suffering from depression in the Middle East – lack of awareness and stigma. “Unfortunately, the stigma around seeking help or admitting to having mental health difficulties is still very much present, especially in the ­Middle East.”

Alkhaja isn’t a lone voice in her awareness mission. Shatha ­Alamri, who suffers from bipolar and other related anxiety disorders, is working on a documentary to highlight the issue and how it affects GCC residents. “Depression is all over the place. The film is about different cases [of depression] in the Gulf, and I am planning to participate in the Dubai film festival,” she says.

While it has been a long road for Alkhaja, she wants people to know that even though depression is always “waiting in the corner”, sufferers don’t have to battle alone. “Go to a professional, and see what is wrong. Find out the source. If you know the source, you will know how to treat it.”

Alkhaja’s artworks and books are just the start of her Light My Heart awareness campaign and her own healing. “I’m proud that I’m giving my work to people. I hope they take advantage of it – I want them to feel and understand what depression is,” she says. “Every person has his or her struggles to face; however, we can always help each other to recover and make our society better.”