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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

Filling the Gaps: An Ongoing Battle for Mental Health Resources at NYUAD

NYU Abu Dhabi makes strides to improve its challenging mental health situation. The Gazelle interviewed NYUAD’s new counselor, Rana Abou-Sinna, and other wellness staff about current and future efforts in mental health.

In November 2019, Rana Abou-Sinna prepared herself for a 14-hour flight from Australia to Abu Dhabi to join NYU Abu Dhabi as a wellness counselor. Abou-Sinna grew up, studied and worked in Australia, leaving Melbourne for the first time to work in Abu Dhabi.
Abou-Sinna first engaged with psychology during her high school years before pursuing it further at Swinburne University of Technology, where she graduated as a Doctor of Psychology with a focus on clinical and forensic psychology. Afterwards, she moved to Monash University in order to study the psychology of youth involved in crime, delving deeper into her passion within the field.
“I felt this … pull towards helping youth who were struggling, and I’ve kind of always had that feeling since [high school],” shared Abou-Sinna. “I was so fascinated about … understanding human behavior and about how humans think, feel and behave. And [psychology] felt like a really good way for me to be able to pursue that pull towards helping people.”
Prior to coming to NYUAD, Abou-Sinna was a provisional psychologist in various rehabilitation centers and court clinics, where she worked closely with youth caught in the Australian criminal justice system. Despite envisioning working in Australia for most of her life, Abou-Sinna was drawn to the Middle East specifically.
“I think I felt a particular pull to the Middle East, particularly as so much displacement has occurred over the past ten years,” said Abou-Sinna. “I definitely saw a need here and I always wanted to contribute in some way. I felt like coming to Abu Dhabi was a step towards that in some way.”
Her interest in working with the youth most definitely travelled with her to NYUAD. However, the environment on campus is different than what she has previously been exposed to.
“I think [the mental health environment at NYUAD] is diverse … I think students come in with different things that concern them,” explained Abou-Sinna. “I really want to contribute to the development of the people here, helping them to fulfill their potential by supporting them through mental health difficulties. I really want to play a role in mental health promotion across campus.”
The recent addition of Abou-Sinna to the wellness team has come at a critical moment for the mental health landscape at NYUAD. For months, the growing student body of almost 1,500 individuals only had access to a single full-time counselor, Dr. Vedrana Mladina, and one part-time counselor, Dr. Rami AlShihabi, for all of its mental health needs.
Within the Wellness Department, this stagnation was also felt on a personal level. In their ongoing search for new hires, even well qualified and vetted counselors such as Abou-Sinna were forced to overcome significant bureaucratic hurdles before even being considered for positions on campus. Dr. Ayaz Virji, Medical Director of The Health Center at NYUAD, highlighted the UAE’s extensive licensing process as a key factor behind the backlog in counselors.
“The licensing process for clinical psychologists in the UAE takes many months and, at times, years to satisfy,” asserted Virji. “Candidates go through a rigorous process including background checks, primary source verification of all documents, an oral exam and multiple interviews. The fact that NYUAD hires only PhD's — the highest level of training a counselor can get — and that there is a shortage of clinical psychologists in the UAE makes the hiring process even more challenging.”
The UAE first introduced licensing in 2009 along with a series of examinations used to test the proficiency and personability of incoming psychologists. However, as AlShihabi — also a former programmer for licensing with the UAE Department of Health — mentioned in his interview with The Gazelle, exam halls across the nation have been largely empty. This reality, in combination with expected growth in demand for psychological treatment in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, has made for a widespread shortage in mental health professionals across the nation.
“Even in Abu Dhabi, I feel I wish we had more. I work part-time in the private [sector], and most [clinics] are booked three to four weeks in advance. The demand is high, the supply is not that much … We don’t have an influx of psychologists wanting to be hired here, to do the testing,” explained AlShihabi on the scope of wellness resources in the Middle East.
These setbacks, however, have not hindered the evolution of attitudes and stigma towards mental health within the country. In fact, throughout AlShihabi’s nine years as a career psychologist, he reports to have seen a huge increase in acceptance, as both the media and community begin to accept the benefits of addressing mental health. The fight to fill the gaps and promote positive psychology has also been a constant fight within the NYUAD community.
A recent decision to separate the former Health & Wellness Center at NYUAD into two different entities gave rise the newly founded Wellness Department, led by Wayne Young.
“The Health Center is staffed by medical professionals that can help with physical and mental health issues,” explained Young. “But the Wellness Department aims to educate students on what we consider the three aspects of a wellness journey: mental fitness, such as meditation, mindfulness, gratitude and emotional/social connections, physical fitness, achieved through focusing on one’s body through good nutrition, physical activity and group fitness classes and finally health promotion, covering education in areas that promote improved wellness.”
The department recently hired Dr. Remy Shanker in the capacity of NYUAD’s first wellness specialist, who in the following weeks will begin a student focus group-based data collection process, with hopes of identifying mental health and wellness gaps in our community.
Students are not the only ones who have recently demanded an increase in mental health resources on campus. The Health Promotion Office, in collaboration with the Lighthouse Center for Wellbeing, recently trained over 75 Campus Life staff and academic faculty in mental health first aid. The intensive two-day learning experience granted community members a three-year certification on providing emergency support to students experiencing mental health crises.
On par with institutional efforts, student-led initiatives remain at the crux of the efforts to deal with the gaps in mental health services provisions.
“If we were limited to just professional counselors, that would be insufficient resources for our community,” asserted NYUAD Dean of Students Kyle Farley. “It is vital to invest in students, because students are the first line of defense for other students.”
REACH, NYUAD’s student-led peer-counseling and mental health empowerment group, continues to expand its Nook hours, providing spaces for students to rely on each other for support. The group has increased collaborations with wellness counselors to provide hands-on workshops on managing anxiety, stress, burnout and even on equipping themselves to support friends who have experienced sexual misconduct.
The Student Health Advisory Committee under the NYUAD Student Government, has organized events like Screw Up Night, where dozens of students gathered in the amphitheatre to hear and share stories of failure. SHAC is currently in conversation with the Dean of Students and the Medical Director of the Health Center to explore better the resilience and wellbeing of the student body.
In the meantime, Mladina remains the counselor on-call to provide crisis response 24 hours a day.
“Both Residential Education, the Wellness Exchange and Public Safety can call me to intervene when needed. I live on campus and am therefore able to respond immediately. The phone doesn't ring all the time, but when it does, I need to be ready to respond,” affirmed Mladina.
“I want students to know that whether we can schedule something next week or not, there is always the possibility of coming in in times of crisis — appointment or not,” continued AlShihabi.
“Did we have a shortage? Do we still currently need more? Absolutely. Have we provided as best as we can? I think so,” said AlShihabi.
Laura Assanmal is Senior Features Editor, Sarah Afaneh is Deputy Features Editor and Social Media Editor and Dylan Palladino is Senior News Editor. Email them at
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