Depression ‘a big issue’ for isolated UAE expatriates

Loneliness, financial ­worries, and anxiety over ever-­demanding jobs put many in the professional workforce under a strain that could lead to long-lasting mental health problems.

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ABU DHABI // With its beaches, tax-free salaries and incredible skylines, the expat life is seen as the envy of many.

But loneliness, financial ­worries, and anxiety over ever-­demanding jobs put many in the professional workforce under a strain that could lead to long-lasting mental health problems.

“You might have plenty of money and sunshine, but that wears out very quickly,” said Dr Martin Baggaley, chief medical officer and a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Child and Adolescent International Clinic, the Abu Dhabi branch of one of London’s leading psychiatric hospitals.

A generous salary that forms part of “the lifestyle” does not compensate for being a long way from family and friends, he said.

This year’s World Health Day is focused on depression and the millions around the globe who suffer without the help they need.

“If you look at what keeps people well, it is often things like having a close relationship, friends and emotional support, feeling we are a part of something. And here people can feel quite isolated.”

Relationship and family issues and sexual, financial and physical problems often lead adults into isolation when not addressed. “The most common mental health issues within the UAE are depression and anxiety, particularly among expats,” Dr Baggaley said.


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“There are specific issues with stress around expat society. People are worried about their jobs after the [economic] downturn and [fall in] oil prices.

“More people are coping with uncertainty and are threatened with unemployment, long hours. Expats with children worry about their education and financial issues are a common factor.”

Anxiety and depression are global issues, but pairing that with isolation can be alarming, he said. “I saw an expat woman who had some very challenging teenage children to deal with,” Dr Baggaley said. “It was difficult for them to stay indoors because they loved the outside – and they moved here in the summer – so that really challenged the mother. They came here at a time when everyone else disappears, so she was on her own for weeks with disruptive children and her husband would be way working most of the time.

“This lady spent a lot of her social life back home with friends and family and when she moved here it became an issue for her that led to depression.

“Where people find it hard to establish a life that is familiar to them, it can lead to feeling lonely and isolated.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability across the globe with more than 300 million people suffering from it.

The rate of depression has increased by more than 18 per cent since 2005, WHO said.

“Depression is the leading cause of lost days at work and loss of productivity and suffering worldwide,” Dr Baggaley said.

Andrea Allen, 43, a British mother of two living in Dubai, suffered from postnatal depression after giving birth. Her experience led her to set up Out of the Blues, a support group run by volunteers.

The group now holds weekly meetings in Dubai to offer support to both expats and locals who suffer from depression.

“I get emails and calls on a daily basis from people suffering from depression and asking to join us,” she said.

“I started the group for parents suffering postnatal depression but because there are so may more people with depression in need for support, we now have members suffering from many different aspects of it.

“Although we have both expats and Emiratis seeking support, expats living here who do not have their siblings or parents to speak with are very much affected by it.

“It is hard to even turn to friends within the city – many are in the same situation.

“We need a lot more awareness in the UAE and professionals who will not fail these men and women.”


More resources:

Where to find support for depression in the UAE

Alternative ways to find affordable therapy

Spotting the signs of depression