While on co-op with the Department of Global Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, psychology majors and identical twin sisters Dalal and Alaa Alhomaizi approached the director and asked if they could coordinate a program in Kuwait for World Mental Health Day in October. They got a positive response, and then got straight to work.
When the sisters went home to Kuwait over the summer they started working with the local mental health hospital and the Ministry of Health.
Once they secured funding, they got back in touch with the team at MGH, and everything fell into place.
The Alhomaizi sisters have started a campaign called SPEAK, which stands for Standing for Psychological Education and Awareness in Kuwait. In Kuwait, they explain, mental illness has a stigma attached to it. So much so that when their father approached the Ministry for Higher Education and told an official there that his daughters were going to study psychology in the States, the sisters were denied scholarships. The official asked their father if “he would like [his] daughters to be crazy like their patients.”
This type of stigma is what the team from MGH and SPEAK was up against going into the two-day conference in October. A team of two associate chiefs of psychiatry, the vice chief of psychiatry, and several other members of the MGH faculty joined the young women and the Ministry of Health.
There was training of more than 300 primary care physicians and a public program, during which the women and other invited guests spoke about their experiences with people with mental health problems.
“It was a very successful event,” said Dalal. “The turnout was much better than we had expected. And we were able to spread the message in a very large scale.”
SPEAK, the young women say, is an anti-stigma campaign that includes advocacy and education. They advocate for quality and respect, saying people with mental health problems should be seen as humans and not “crazies.”
In Kuwait, primary care physicians receive just six weeks of training in mental health, yet they are the ones who are most likely to first see the symptoms. This is why it was important for them to get as many of these physicians to the conference as possible. It’s also why it’s been important to them to have the Ministry of Health on their side.
“If the Ministry of Health is helpful, then it’s good for the country,” said Alaa. She says there have been five to 10 mental health clinics set up recently in primary care centers.
The sisters transferred to Northeastern University after studying business for two years in Kuwait University. They are the first in their large family – they are two of eight children, including identical twin brothers – to study anything other than business or banking. They say coming to Boston, and specifically Northeastern, was a perfect decision as they will be graduating with extensive work and research experience. “Our CVs are filled,” said Dalal. “We wouldn’t get this sort of thing elsewhere, and we’ve only been here two years.”
In addition to creating the campaign and working on co-op, the sisters have worked in faculties’ labs. Dalal works in Dr. Lisa Barrett’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab and Alaa works in Professor John Coley’s Categorization and Reasoning Lab.
After graduating Alaa and Dalal hope to work in research for a couple of years before pursuing PhDs. No matter what they intend on continuing the SPEAK campaign. They are building out the campaign’s website so that Kuwaitis have more resources and community support.
“This was a topic that was closeted for many years, and now people are talking about it and accepting it more,” said Dalal. Thanks, in part, to these young women.
by Kara Matuszewski Sassone