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Aishath Sanoora: Working to improve mental health in the Maldives

Posted: 4 March 2021

Maldives, Experience, Impact, Recipient, Videos,

Australia Awards alumna Aishath Sanoora is applying the knowledge and skills she gained from her studies in Australia to support the mental health of people in the Maldives.

Sanoora applied for an Australia Awards Scholarship as a way to further her knowledge of mental health and counselling, while empowering herself and becoming more independent. She received a Scholarship in 2011, through which she completed a Master of Counselling at the University of Queensland.

Sanoora’s experiences in Australia made her more independent and resilient—and exposure to a new culture taught her to appreciate and accept differences. Despite her headscarf contrasting to the attire of those around her, she never felt different and found she was accepted for who she was. Sanoora describes the two years she spent in Australia as the “wonder years” of her life.

Sanoora at her graduation ceremony at the University of Queensland in 2011

Upon her return home, Sanoora joined the Maldives National University as a psychology lecturer. Drawing on the experiences she gained in Australia, she made changes to the way she delivered lectures to psychology students and attempted to make her classes more interactive.

Soon after arriving back in Malé, Sanoora began to notice that there were very few places where the public could seek support for their mental health. Fellow Australia Awards alumna Aminath Nahida, a close friend and relative of Sanoora’s, also saw this vacuum. Their solution was the idea of opening a mental health clinic to support the public. Together with four other Australian alumni, Sanoora and Nahida established the Institute for Mental Wellbeing in 2015, with the aim of assessing and treating clients with mental health issues and disabilities.

Sanoora with Australia Awards alumna and co-founder of the Institute for Mental Wellbeing, Aminath Nahida

The Institute offers a variety of services, including counselling and psychotherapy services, psychological assessments, psychiatry consultations, early intervention programs, services for children with special needs, advocacy and awareness programs, and internship opportunities for bachelor’s degree and master’s degree-level students of psychology and counselling.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to see that we get the opportunity to give back to society. I train students in the psychology field and some of those students who I have trained work side-by-side with us in our clinic. Seeing them work and giving back makes me feel that I have achieved something in life,” says Sanoora.

By July 2019, the Institute had provided services to nearly 3000 clients and was serving approximately 130 clients each week. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group faced many challenges in running the Institute, as the lockdown in the Maldives affected how they were able to provide services. However, within a few days of the onset of lockdown measures, the Institute managed to set up online services for those suffering from anxiety and stress-related issues exacerbated by the pandemic, and to provide continued therapy for the existing clients. As many clients were experiencing financial difficulties, the Institute offered discounted services for the first three months of the pandemic and even conducted free sessions for those who could not afford their services.

At around the same time, the Special Education Programme for children with disability in the Maldives was paused. To help address this gap, the group came up with individual plans for children with disability and collaborated with their parents to conduct all interventions online. In addition, the Institute used social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to promote awareness about mental health and how to deal with difficult circumstances.

Sanoora remains in contact with her lecturers from the University of Queensland. Before the pandemic, she invited one of her lecturers, Dr Judith Murray, to the Maldives to help develop the framework of the Master of Psychology program for the Maldives National University. Sanoora and Dr Murray also conducted a workshop on ‘Dealing with loss and grief’ for the university’s students and staff, which was a huge success.

Sanoora is also still in touch with the friends she made in Australia. Their discussions are about not only their personal lives, but challenges they have been facing in their respective workplaces due to the pandemic. Interestingly, even though her friends work in different parts of the world, Sanoora has found that they are all facing similar challenges. She has valued the guidance and support she has received from this group during this time.

Keen on taking part in alumni engagement initiatives, Sanoora was part of the coordination committee that established the Maldives Australia Alumni Association. She contributed to development of the Association’s constitution, and served as the Secretary of the Executive Committee for two years after the Association was formed in 2015.

Sanoora attending the Australia Awards – South Asia Regional Alumni Workshop in Colombo in 2020

The completion of her master’s degree in Australia paved the way for Sanoora to complete her PhD in Psychology at the University Putra Malaysia, where she is currently on a scholarship provided by Maldives National University. She believes this will assist her to make an even greater impact back home in the Maldives.

“Australia changed me and made me a better person in every aspect of my life. With the knowledge and experiences I gained through Australia Awards, I believe I have become more confident and capable of helping people with mental health illnesses and bringing positive change,” Sanoora says.

Sanoora joins women around the world who are leading innovative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are sharing her story as part of Australia Awards – South Asia’s International Women’s Day 2021 series, which acknowledges the achievements of women leaders and progress towards empowering women in our region.