Towards a better future for mental health in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Yasmin Altwaijri
Dr. Yasmin Altwaijri
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Mental health and addictive disorders are among the leading causes of disease globally, affecting people regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status or culture. These disorders impair not only individual lives, but society as a whole including the economy. The global economic costs of mental disorders were estimated at $2.5 trillion USD, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data, who have made mental health a priority for the organization in 2019.

In an effort to determine the prevalence of mental disorders in Saudi Arabia, we launched the Saudi National Mental Health Survey (SNMHS) in 2010 as part of the WHO-Harvard University World Mental Health Survey Consortium. The survey mainly aimed to answer the following questions about the Saudi community: Who are the individuals most at-risk? What are the most common mental health problems? What are the best ways of offering mental health services? What is the overall burden of mental illness?

Over 76 percent of the households that we approached agreed to be part of the study - an impressive feat, given that household surveys are rarely done in Saudi Arabia.

The results of the survey, revealed in late 2019, found that about 34 percent of Saudis meet the criteria for a mental health condition sometime in their life. More specifically, two in five Saudi youth meet the criteria for a mental health condition sometime in their life. These statistics are comparable to those of European countries like France and Netherlands, and lower than the United States.

Only 13 percent of Saudis seek treatment for their mental health condition in a given year. In fact, 80 percent of Saudis with severe mental health disorders do not seek any treatment. We are working on analyzing the causes of low treatment seeking behavior, which could be caused by low awareness, obstacles to access, or stigma. Mental health conditions also seem to affect more educated Saudis compared to lesser educated ones. This is not surprising, since many of these educated individuals are young and make up the majority of the Saudi population. This finding emphasizes the need to especially cater services to them.

The nationally representative survey sample comprised of over 4,000 Saudi participants – males and females between the ages of 15-65 – from rural and urban regions across the Kingdom. The country spans over almost four fifths of the Arabian Peninsula and has undergone rapid socioeconomic changes over the past few decades.

This landmark study is important in providing a vision for clinicians and health policy makers – for data driven decision making and to establish much-needed relevant preventive, therapeutic, and rehabilitation services in the Kingdom. We hope our research results will stimulate interest from other countries from the region whom we look forward to sharing our expertise with.

There is a need for an advanced mental health infrastructure, which will provide equitable access to mental health services for every individual in the Saudi community. Fortunately, our talented colleagues at the Ministry of Health are in the midst of planning a sophisticated roadmap which will address these goals, as part of the Health Transformation Strategy managed by the Vision Realization Office.

By shedding light on statistics drawn from reliable evidence-based data, these survey results also support those involved in health promotion efforts to remove the stigma associated with mental health problems. The Saudi society is tightly networked, it is recognizably collectivistic, and having a close member in the social circle suffering from a mental illness is considered unfavorable. However, the literature shows that this stigma is much like many Western countries; the Saudi population has similar stigmatizing beliefs and attitudes towards mental illness and seeking treatment for it, a problem shared with most countries.

We hope our findings will open the dialogue about mental health, drive awareness, be an educational resource that increases understanding of mental health conditions prevalent among Saudis, and contributes to challenging the stigma, not only in Saudi Arabia, but in the whole region.


Dr. Yasmin Altwaijri is a senior scientist and head of epidemiology research at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Saudi Arabia.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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