By Nonie Arora

Arnab Chatterjee, Duke Student. Credit: Chrislyn Choo

Freshman Arnab Chatterjee, Credit: Chrislyn Choo

Freshman Arnab Chatterjee spent three days in Abu Dhabi developing solutions to health care problems plaguing the Middle East. He travelled to the Global Issues Network conference, hosted by New York University in Abu Dhabi.

The conference pushes undergraduates to develop sustainable action plans to solve global problems on a regional level in just three days. It has a broad reach, from energy, to health, to waste management. The plans are intended as stepping-stones to bringing positive change to the region.

Chatterjee’s small group focused on mental health, which is often disregarded as a legitimate health concern in the Middle East.

“The ruling bodies of the UAE don’t acknowledge that mental health issues are a real problem, so it often gets swept under the rug,” Chatterjee said.

The group initially attempted to avoid a direct discussion of mental health by asking patients about irregularities in their sleeping and eating patterns, which can be early indicators of mental health issues.

Chatterjee’s team discovered that diabetes was one of the top contributors to the UAE’s mortality rate, and an issue that the government was very much invested in addressing. Multiple studies have suggested a correlation between an increase in the rate of depression among diabetes patients, and vice versa. Other work has shown that the mortality rates among patients with diabetes and depression are significantly higher than those with just diabetes, Chatterjee said. But in this region, seeking help for a mental illness is highly stigmatized. Addressing depression by targeting diabetic populations and their families alleviated this stigma somewhat.

Near the end of the conference, his team suggested that a clinical research study be conducted by New York University’s  public health institute in the region to address whether patient-family support specialists could be helpful in improving patient outcomes. They planned to screen for depression, but without describing the behavior by name. “People can be offended even by doctors asking questions that imply a patient has depression. It’s a delicate balance between being tactful but remaining effective,” Chatterjee said.

Abu Dhabi Skyline, Credit: Wikimedia CommonsChatterjee and his team presented their plan to health care providers from Cleveland Clinic’s medical center in Abu Dhabi, government officials, and the press in Abu Dhabi. He said it was well received by most, but that the government officials remarked that they would have preferred even less emphasis on mental health issues.

Beyond this specific project, Chatterjee said that attending the conference gave him a great opportunity to build a global network with other undergraduates with diverse interests. He is interested in medicine and research, works as a research assistant in the Nicolelis Primate Laboratory, and will be working as a Howard Hughes Research fellow this summer.