Health Care Mental Health Health Wellness

Free counseling is the best thing that has happened to me and my mental health this year

I don’t need to start this article by saying that this year’s been tough on everyone in some way, shape, or form. By now, it is simply a fact of life, a characteristic of nature, just another feature of our ever-expanding spacetime continuum. Interestingly, a lot of my difficulties throughout this year just so happened to be college-related: Where am I supposed to go? Where am I meant to start? Am I going to be at par with everyone else? Is this what I even want? I was fresh out of high school, and instead of excitement, all I could feel was fear. 

Throughout this summer, the idea of starting college was so anxiety-inducing that I had developed the habit of simply ignoring all the emails I was receiving from my college. I know, not so type-A personality of me.

An email letting me know about all the student organizations I could join? Ignored. Another one with some updates about my freshman fall? Reading that later. But when my phone flashed with an email about getting free counseling, I clicked on it without even thinking twice. 

In retrospect, my instantaneous reaction sort of shocks me. I’ve had plenty of experience in therapy at mental health service centers in the UAE, and my experiences never quite went the way I expected them to. From having my emotions reduced to not being listened to at all, I — for a very long time — internalized the idea that maybe therapy just wasn’t for me. Maybe it was less the industry’s fault and more of a problem directly stemming from me. I thought that maybe I was the kind of person who wouldn’t get better from talking about my problems. Perhaps instead I was the kind of person who should keep everything to themselves and hope that somehow, in some way, all my problems would go away. 

Immersed in a culture of “dealing with it”, within a larger world where navigating mental health services is obscure and oftentimes elitist, meant that I’ve learned to live through difficult experiences without support. But one can only be immersed in hardship for so long; at some point, you’re going to feel suffocated. At some point, you’re going to need to swim up to the surface to breathe. 

My moment of needing to swim up to the surface to catch that breath of air manifested itself in checking that email from my university’s health center. This time, help was being offered to me instead of me having to actively be on the lookout for it. This time, it was completely free — readily available and present for me and for so many, regardless of the monetary resources at our disposal. 

Taking a deep breath, I drafted an email to the health center introducing myself timidly, with a gentle, “Hello! My name is Fatima, I’m a freshman, and I’m interested in signing up for counseling throughout the fall semester!” and, every day I am grateful that I had the courage to do so. 

It’s been a month since my fall semester has commenced, and I’ve communicated to my counselor that I need to meet on a weekly basis to talk about things and clear my mind. Happily, she’s signed me up for recurring meetings that now sit patiently in my Google calendar.

It’s important to note that other than finally finding a counselor I feel listened to and genuinely supported by, the biggest difference between my past experiences in therapy and this one was the fact that my other sessions cost about 750 to 950 dirhams per session (about $200 to $260 for reference), while the counseling I was getting from my university was absolutely free.

There was a pang of deep guilt that surmounted my being every single time I would sit in the car with my mother on our way to my sessions. Most specialized mental health services tend to be located in more urbanized areas like Dubai, so in order to receive help for my Anorexia in 2017 and 2018, we’d have to take an hour-long drive in the morning, do my one-hour session, and then drive back with a 950 dirham dent in my mother’s wallet. Beyond the direct financial costs, there was also the cost of time, energy, fuel, and transport.

It seemed like there were far more obstacles to this therapy thing than there were positives. And there are so many factors that can make these obstacles even more insurmountable. Things like social class, availability of transport, and family support can affect whether or whether not someone gets the help they need. Beyond that, there exists a knowledge gap in knowing how and where to get help in the first place, which can make all the difference. These nuances and intricacies make the existence of free and accessible mental health resources in every and all communities all the more vital.

Of course, my problems have still not gone away. I still wake up so fatigued on some days that I do not have the energy to move. Most days, I can’t figure out the purpose of my existence, of the choices I make. But there’s something so cathartic about that gentle knowing in the back of your mind that, no matter what, every single week, you always have someone who willingly chooses to listen to you. That support won’t cause an astronomical dent in your savings. That you don’t need to depend on anyone else to pay for these weekly counseling sessions. They’re free and available for you whenever you want them, and especially when you need them.

Now I look forward to every Monday at 12 p.m. I wear an outfit I’ve thought carefully about — an intentional selection of textiles and colors and shapes and sizes.

I wear a cool set of earrings.

I write a short journal entry beforehand laying out all the concerns I’d like to discuss.

I keep a cup of tea an arm’s length away.

I join the Zoom call five minutes ahead of time as per the required etiquette.

And when I see my counselor’s shining face on my screen — just for a moment — I am able to breathe.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress, check out the resources below:

* People who are deaf or hard of hearing can reach Lifeline via TTY by dialing 1-800-799-4889 or use the Lifeline Live Chat service online.

* Text TALK to 741741 for 24/7, anonymous, free counseling.

* Call the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Hotline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), for free, confidential support for substance abuse treatment.

* Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-TALK (8255). Here is a list of international suicide hotlines.

* Call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), for confidential crisis support.

* Call Trevor Lifeline, 1-866-488-7386, a free and confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ+ youth.

7 Cups and IMAlive are free, anonymous online text chat services with trained listeners, online therapists, and counselors.

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By Fatima Al Jarman

Fatima Al Jarman is a growing writer and storyteller from the United Arab Emirates. Her work explores notions of identity, purpose, and healing. She is also the founding editor-in-chief of Unootha, an alternative digital literary and arts collective that centers the work of Middle Eastern and North African women. Typically, you can find Fatima illustrating a graphic, listening to BTS, or immersed in pure vibes.