A friend in need: How companionship can prevent depression

This World Mental Health Day, The National asks experts and UAE residents about debilitating loneliness, which can often be sparked by moving to a new country

Meeting like-minded people, be that via a book club or hiking group, is one way to connect with others in a new place. Getty Images
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Moving abroad can be an equally exciting and overwhelming proposition. For those starting out by themselves, challenges such as loneliness and the lack of a social life are particularly prevalent.

A recent study by the University of Cambridge identified social connection as the most important factor to ward off recurrent depressive disorder, cutting the risk by 18 per cent.

Tuesday marks World Mental Health Day and to coincide, The National speaks to social experts and residents about how happiness can take a hit during the expatriate life – and what to do to help.

“Many expatriates, especially those who have recently moved to the UAE, have left their closest relationships behind them,” says Devika Mankani, a holistic psychologist at Hundred Wellness Clinic and co-founder of Chearful.com.

“Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation are on the rise, so this is a much-needed reminder to consider those who are vulnerable among us, even if they don’t appear to be from a distance.”

The new arrival: ‘Dubai can be lonely’

For Jo Corbett, 32, moving to Dubai from New Zealand was an exciting yet challenging time. “It was difficult for me,” says Corbett, a life coach. “I was in a new country, I didn't have many friends and I was working long hours at the time while studying.

“I didn’t have a lot of time to get out and meet people. While I made the most of the time I did have, I was isolated for the most part. I certainly felt feelings of loneliness and my mental health took a hit.”

Loneliness is an internal experience and although someone might seem OK, this doesn't mean they are
Jo Corbett, life coach

As well as actively trying to make new friends in Dubai, Corbett leaned on her friends and family back home, setting up regular Zoom calls with loved ones.

Today, Corbett channels her experiences into her work as a life coach, helping others who may be feeling lonely or disconnected. “It is definitely something I’ve seen with my clients in the UAE,” she says.

“It can be incredibly overwhelming and isolating when moving to a new city, especially without a good support system. I've especially seen many women struggle with this when they first arrive.”

Corbett says we all have a responsibility to support each other in a community like Dubai. “It's important to remember that loneliness is an internal experience and although someone might seem OK, this doesn't mean they are,” she says.

“We need to open space for conversations with friends and family to check in with them about how they feel and if they need support.”

The old-timer: ‘So many people move away’

For long-term Dubai resident Heather Broderick, 43, social disconnection is a direct result of expatriate life.

Since leaving her native Scotland 14 years ago, the workplace culture consultant has seen friends come and go, and says that maintaining friendships takes time and effort.

It is easy to get caught up in your own thoughts, and that can be dangerous for our emotional health
Heather Broderick, workplace culture consultant

“During my time abroad, I have met some amazing, like-minded people and have created some lifelong friendships. But over time, most of them have moved home or moved on,” she says. “Now, without those strong friendships, it can be lonely at times.”

For Broderick, one of the main risks of social disconnection is overthinking and plunging into a negative spiral. “It is easy to get caught up in your own life and your own thoughts, and that can be dangerous for our emotional and mental health,” she says.

“Having people around to support us, raise our confidence, listen to us and take our mind off things, is a great way to avoid getting tangled up in introspective negativity.”

Now, Broderick makes a conscious effort to nurture friendships that she has let slide due to work and family commitments, and is encouraging others to do the same.

“People need people,” she says. “No matter how comfortable we are on our own, without coming into contact with others, sharing experiences with others and being a part of something collective, we are more likely to struggle with social isolation.”

The remote worker: ‘WFH isn’t always a good thing’

Australian Lucy Gow, 32, lived in the UAE for seven years before returning to life down under to support her husband’s career in 2019.

She continued to work in her role as group head of PR and communications at UAE hospitality group Solutions Leisure, but has found remote working to be difficult, despite the unwavering support of her employer.

“Over the space of three months last Christmas, my mental health deteriorated,” says Gow. “Working alone was taking its toll, as was watching others supersede me in their careers.

Even if it's one call or Zoom a day, make time for your team and clients
Lucy Gow, PR executive

“I didn’t feel good enough, valued or seen, perhaps due to the time spent alone and making up scenarios, or the simple fact that the role I'd taken and the one that had developed were on opposite ends of the spectrum.

“My sense of worth was diminishing rapidly as a result of no social interaction; of missing all the celebrations, the team events and the cultural activities that were of such importance."

After finding a circle of like-minded professional women, Gow began to lower her expectations and credits her new social circle for changing her life.

“What I would say to people is, if you are isolated or remote, get out of the house,” she says. “Additionally, make time for your team and clients. Even if it's one call or Zoom a day, just speak to them. It expands your brain and changes your mindset.

“Finally, speak up. If you're in a bad place or you feel like you're going under, tell someone.”

The expert: ‘Find your people’

Clinical therapist and life coach Anne Jackson has seen a pattern emerge from those moving to the UAE. “When we move here, be it with our spouses and children, or alone, we are often leaving our community behind us,” says Jackson, founder of One Life Coaching.

“If we have those strong social connections back home, we will probably feel empowered to start this new life abroad; however, the strength often lies in those connections left behind.

“I’ve had many clients experience depression and isolation and not realise it’s because they left their social connection at home and haven’t built one here.”

Despite this, Jackson encourages new arrivals to be selective with their friendships. “Choose friends and acquaintances that share your values, your aspirations, your ideas and your dreams,” she says.

“Meeting people whilst doing an activity is also far easier, and if you don’t connect with anyone the first time, you at least are doing something you enjoy.

“Finally, always be yourself. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not to be accepted – if they don’t like you how you are, they are not your people.”

Updated: October 10, 2023, 3:58 AM