When Kuwaiti beauty entrepreneur Sheikha Majda Al Sabah was hit with debilitating depression, she faced her personal battle head-on. She speaks of her mission to break its social stigma in the Middle East.
“My father had a stroke a few years ago. I stayed with him for two months in the hospital. The feelings of worry and uncertainty were all-consuming at a time when I was working non-stop and already felt drained. One day, I collapsed. Some referred to my experience as a depression, but what I remember is that I couldn’t even feel myself. I was numb. I call it a disaster, but one that triggered an awakening deep within.
Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia
“I was born in Kuwait in 1970, to Sheikh Jaber Humoud Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Sheikha Amthal Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the sister of the current Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. I have three sisters and an elder brother, Majed, who is my mentor to this day. Although I don’t have any education outside of the country, my family is and always has been very open to information. But – ‘if you want to do something, find it here.’ Mine was a conservative childhood. We went to school and then we went home, but that didn’t stop us from learning or having passions. From day one, I loved drawing, painting, and experimenting with colors. However, I was married at 17 and didn’t have time to pursue my studies or hobbies. At 18, I had my first child. Now, I have four daughters and am a grandmother.
“When my children grew up, I decided that the time had come to think about myself. I wanted to start a business that no one had, and along with my sister, founded a beauty company in 2007. Specializing in beauty home services, it was the first of its kind in Kuwait, and though it was successful, at the time, beauty wasn’t considered prestigious. We started the company with our own money, without any help from our husbands or fathers. Even though we didn’t rely on influencers or advertising, it was successful. We soon expanded to a big space and even launched our own line of products infused with Moroccan oil that served the beauty needs of Arab women. I still recall our launch during Ramadan. We were fasting and not sleeping and the orders went through the roof. Towers of boxes filled our salon.
“That same salon is our sister hangout. When I was hit with my ‘disaster,’ I recall sitting there and looking at my watch, wishing everyone would just leave. My depression consumed me. When I spoke of how I was feeling, I was told that I am a social figure and not to talk about it or people would say bad things about me. But I thought this is just something I needed to fix. Others told me to pray to God and read the Qur’an. The stigma associated with mental health is everywhere, and I saw it intensely here, in my country. I stopped socializing and quickly gained a lot of weight. Alone, I would stare at a painting on the wall for 30 minutes and just zone out. My mind was devoured with existentialist thoughts: ‘Why am I here? What if this life is nothing? What if it is just a dream?’ I was racked with so many questions and so much doubt. I hated life.
“That was a year ago and I floated in this mindset for two months, when one day, my sister intervened. She took me to see a psychiatrist. Face-to-face with a doctor, the first words that came out were tears. I felt like I had finally entered a place where this stone could be removed from my shoulders.
“The doctor explained to me that I had a chemical imbalance, which could be fixed through medication. My immediate reaction was that I would do whatever it took to get well. She explained that while everyone has the impression that medication is addictive, it is not. I also did my own research and knew that it wasn’t. I told my daughters that I was seeking help and prescription treatment and they were fully supportive of my decision. In the beginning, I saw the psychiatrist every two weeks and now I go every two months. After eight months of taking the medication, I will soon stop.
“In the spring, my sister and I were looking at the corporate social investment aspect of our company. We looked at supporting various organizations, like orphanages; but ultimately we wanted to invest in something no one was looking at in the region. Sometimes the answer to what you are searching for is right in front of you. We decided then and there to create a mental health initiative. This strategic planning also helped me climb out of my depression. I went to work every day – miserably – with no makeup, a flowy abaya because I was so fat, and my hair pulled back in a messy updo. But the harder I worked, the more relief I found. I had something to look forward to.
“When I was at my lowest, I took a three-month hiatus from social media. When I went back online I told my followers that I had been away because I had not been well. ‘I had depression. I am on medication and I am not ashamed to tell you. Now, we are going to work together – you and I – to stop the stigma.’ At first, I was scared. Suddenly, I saw my views quadruple. Everyone was talking about it. Then, people started speaking up. ‘I’m on Prozac. I’m on Xanax. I’m living a terrible life. Thank you for speaking up. We can speak up now.’”
The ASAP Initiative is a private campaign funded by ASAP Beauty and co-founded by Sheikha Majda Al Sabah. It promotes mental health awareness and funds local, regional, and international initiatives. If you are seeking regional referrals, contact Asap.com.kw
As told to Caterina Minthe
Photography: Djinane AlSuwayeh