Each month, we take a look into one speaker’s journey and how they are creating change in their community. This month, we are covering mental health thus we invited Ally Salama; a social entrepreneur, speaker, podcaster and The Middle East’s Mental Health Ambassador.
Ally Salama founded EMPWR, the first Mental Health Magazine in the Middle East, winning Harvard’s Top 7 Most Impactful Social Initiatives in 2019 and earning recognition from the World Health Organization.
1. In 2019, you founded empower-mag.com, the first Mental Health Magazine in the Middle East. Why did you choose to focus on mental health specifically in the Middle East? Is it a problem that is less considered/covered in the Middle East?
I chose to focus on Mental Health because of a deep and life changing personal struggle that was classified as a Mental Illness by professionals. I did not know at the time what Mental Health was, let alone mental illness. I believed then and there that with education, I would have been able to find the right type of support and found a community which would have made my healing a lot smoother. It’s the sole reason why I created EMPWR. It’s a problem that’s not quite properly addressed in the Middle East due to fear and shame.
2. How did your journey start as a mental health ambassador?
I started by founding EMPWR, then I travelled to attend Harvard’s Arab conference where I met DR. Nasser Loza: WFMH President Elect. We kicked off a great relationship, a father son type, which then led to an opportunity to speak at the WHO, UN, MIT and many more global stages. I primarily find my passion is sharing an important message that can ease the burden on many, as I never found myself having someone to point a finger towards when I was on my healing journey. Especially at an Arab man like myself. So I set myself to be that person, and that’s the intention the journey started with.
3. Do you think that mental illness has increased more among adolescents and young adults? And, would you say that social media is driving the numbers or are we just more open about it?
That’s a hot topic worthy of a lengthy debate. I definitely think mental illness is highly neglected amongst youth and adolescents. However, I wouldn’t associate all the blame on social media. Social media is a tool that enforces behaviours. I believe once we look deeper beneath the surface we’ll see many more trends that are causing the numbers to increase beyond the increase in social media adoption in youth. I’ll always say that while technology evolves and changes, biology will always stay the same, and unfortunately, at work, and having technology driven by algorithms; that doesn’t always serve our mental health.
4. Research has shown that the way in which a person deals with uncertainty predicts the state of their mental health. Intolerance of uncertainty is often described as a ‘psychological allergy’ to uncertainty. Do you agree that many mental health problems (e.g. anxiety, worry, etc) derive from being uncertain on a particular situation and/or on what the future holds?
That’s something I highly agree with. The new hot talk around workplace wellness all revolves around resilience and mental toughness. It’s now not a matter of “if” you can deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, but “how” can you deal with times of changes. The global landscape is now changing and such a characteristic can be taught at school as skills which can directly have a positive impact on the development of individuals growing up in the educational system.
5. Many people tend to believe that worry aids problem solving. In other words, they think that if they worry about certain problems, they will be able to find better solutions to them. However, they fail to realise that too much worry can have an impact on their mental health. Do you agree?
I do agree. Too much worry stirs anxiety and it puts you in a fight or flight situation when anxiety soars. You really can’t be in a creative state of mind where you’re able to best solve for problems while feeling that anxious and worried.
6. Generally, anxiety is often described as a an emotional discomfort that results from multiple thoughts and feelings. Are there any tips that you would give to people struggling with managing their thoughts towards a specific situation?
From personal experience, I absolutely highly recommend journaling. It’s my coping mechanism to ground myself during times where I feel high levels of anxiety and the best part about it is that when you write your feelings on a piece of paper, or in a journal, there’s a power you instantly feel, that the voice inside your head has been heard, and there has been space created just by the mere fact of writing down any discomfort/worry down. It’s magical. I learned that from personal experience seeking professional psychological care during my struggle.
7. In one of your articles, you mentioned public stigma. Public stigma highlights the prejudice and discrimination that often people with mental illness face from friends, family and colleagues. In your opinion, how can people challenge this particular stigma? And, what actions should they take?
By openly speaking about it. It’s really that simple. The more people talk about it – the less power the stigma in our society will hold and the more people will feel more comfortable being themselves and committing to seeking help and healing at their own pace.
8. What kind of advice would you give to people that want to seek mental help but are afraid to do so?
I’d absolutely encourage them to seek someone they trust to open up to, given they ask their permission – whether or not that person they trust have the capacity to listen to them.
It’s important to always ensure you’re safe opening up to others. The other advice I’d give them would be to, instead of – or – alongside opening up to a close and trustworthy friend, ask them if they’d be available to come with you to visit a mental health professional. You aren’t alone in seeking help ever. We all need the support. And it takes a lot of strength to ask for that type of support from a friend. Being vulnerable isn’t easy. So you’re not alone.
9. What are some steps that one can take to ensure a healthy state of mind?
As someone who advocates for mental health, these are my personal tips I ensure I commit to myself:
- Being mindful of your thoughts. You’re not your thoughts, and you can indeed challenge any undesirable thought that comes across your mind.
- Surrounding yourself with a great support system.
- Incorporating physical exercise in your life.
- Allowing time for mindfulness and/or intentional time for absolute stillness in your life.
- Eating clean. The gut is the second brain and there’s high correlation between brain health and diet.