SAFEGUARDING THE MENTAL HEALTH OF ARAB YOUTH

  • By: Bakinam Khaled

    Several weeks into its Season 14, Qatar Foundation’s Stars of Science continued to highlight mental health challenges among youth in the Arab world, with two of its innovators addressing separate issues in this field with their inventions.

    Noraldin Al-Deri, a PhD candidate in the biology of neurodevelopmental disorders, is working to tackle a problem he’s seen first-hand – potential misdiagnoses of neurodevelopmental disorders in children. Al-Deri personally witnessed the consequences a misdiagnosis can have on affected children and their families.

    “Our family friend struggled with a misdiagnosis growing up, and I saw how they struggled financially and emotionally as a result – a misdiagnosis can mean we are losing a child’s potential forever,” said Al-Deri.

    Al-Deri’s invention, the Infant Intellectual Auto Classifier, aims to resolve the issue by assessing a non-verbal child’s intellectual capabilities between their first four months to three years – a critical period in their development path. An algorithm collects behavioural and physiological data from children, including heart rate, eye movement and facial reactions, as they watch an animated video playing on a screen and respond to the purposeful stimuli. Based on this information, the algorithm classifies the possible zone of child’s intellectual ability and assists in the proper diagnosis tasks of the physician accordingly.

    Lebanese biomedical engineering student Georges Jreij set his sights on addressing the unrelenting spontaneity of meltdowns in children with autism spectrum disorder. Like Al-Deri, he observed how this challenge can impact the life of the child and those around them through a case in his extended family.

    His product, the Wearable Autism Meltdown Predictor, combines a variety of sensors to collect data – such as changes in heartrate and skin dampness – with artificial intelligence (AI) to predict meltdowns in children with autism. The AI algorithm also ‘learns’ over time, which is refined to more accurately detect meltdowns through a training phase and by parents’ input.

    “Even though every case of autism is different, helping families prepare better in the case of meltdowns is something that holds universal benefits,” said Jreij.

    “I wanted to make a product that could help make the lives of these families easier – regardless of where their case lies on the autism spectrum and their socioeconomic status,” said Jreij.

    Al-Deri and Jreij’s participation on the show shines a spotlight on a generational problem. In the 12th Annual ASA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey – published in 2020 – nearly two-in-five (38 percent) of young Arabs said they knew someone with mental health issues. A majority of respondents (56 percent) also claimed that it is difficult to get quality medical care for mental health issues in their respective countries.

     

    According to Sultana Afdhal, CEO, World Innovation Summit for Health, Qatar Foundation’s (QF) global health initiative, there is a pressing need for more innovations that make mental healthcare more accessible and effective for the region’s youth.

    “There are still shortfalls in mental healthcare systems throughout the region, and we need novel technological solutions that can help plug these gaps and supplement existing resources,” said Afdhal.

    “Ensuring the mental well-being of our next generation is vital to sustaining our region’s development in future, and so we need the mental healthcare apparatus to keep pace with the needs of our youth.”

    Mental healthcare in the region also needs to overcome a negative stigma. In a 2021 study, researchers from Hamad Medical Corporation and Primary Health Care Corporation found that mental health literacy in the region was lacking among the public, and even in healthcare professionals, which resulted in negative attitudes toward mental health conditions.

    According to Dr. Omar Mendoza Mahmood, Acting Clinical Director of Psychology at Sidra Medicine and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, innovators like Al-Deri and Jreij are needed to help encourage better awareness of mental health in the region.

    “Mental healthcare is a priority for Sidra Medicine and Qatar,” said Dr. Mahmood. “With help from the next generation of brilliant minds in the Arab world, we are working to ensure that we can continue to support the mental wellbeing of our communities well into the future.

    “Our youth have an opportunity to reshape the conversations that surround mental health in our region. Initiatives like Stars of Science give them a platform to discuss these issues with the wider public, which can hopefully challenge the long-term stigmatization of mental healthcare.”

    The range of support services at Qatar Science and Technology Park’s (QSTP), where SOS is also hosted, includes mentorship and incubation and funding programs, and further support for SOS participants in developing and commercializing their projects.

    Professor Mohamed K. Watfa, Associate Dean and Graduate Program Director, Australian University in Dubai (Wollongong), Dubai, UAE, and contestant on Season 4, served as guest judge in this week’s episode. He lent his engineering expertise to the Season 14 contestants to help them refine and prepare their inventions for the upcoming design and testing phase of the competition.

    Stars of Science will air every Friday and Saturday from September 02, 2022, to October 14, 2022, on six channels in the region and online. Please visit the broadcast guide for channels and timings, starsofscience.com.

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