DUBAI // Young people’s increasing reliance on social media and unvetted access to information online is fuelling increased rates of depression, doctors and mental health experts warn.
On World Health Day, doctors are advising parents of the warning signs of depression and anxiety in young children and teens and what can be done to tackle the problem.
According to the World Health Organisation, the UAE has the highest regional level of depression, at 5.1 per cent of the population. The Emirates also ranks highly for anxiety in the WHO’s tables, with 4.1 per cent of people admitting to a problem.
In 2015, there were 444,016 cases of depression reported at primary health centres, while 354,199 people sought help for anxiety.
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting more than 300 million people, and although rarer in children it is becoming more evident in adolescents.
Fewer than 4 per cent of young children are said to have depression, but that figure leaps closer to 20 per cent in teenagers, with the stress of school life and social media to blame, experts said.
“When there are different cultures working and living together like in Dubai, that can create stressful environments, particularly in young people,” said psychiatrist Dr Rasha Bassim, clinical director at The Priory in Dubai Health Care City.
“Social media affects a young person’s ability to study or concentrate in class. Parents cannot control what their children are exposed to online.
“Children need freedom to explore, but it is a challenge to keep them safe. Young people share things online, and they are exposed to violent, aggressive and bloody scenes, which was not always the case.“
Exposure to unregulated internet content is having a knock-on effect on the mental health of young people, said Dr Bassim, adding that parents needed to take control of what their children were watching.
“Gradually, children become less fearful of these scenes as it almost becomes normal, and younger generations are becoming more aggressive, and depressed,” she said.
“Parents are very busy, but there must be a balance to spend time with their kids.
“Children must learn how to interact and have social skills. Some children lack these basic skills as they have not had real experiences.”
Sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness and poor concentration all characterise depressive disorders.
It can be long lasting, or recurrent and substantially impair someone’s ability to perform at school or work.
Global figures suggest 2 per cent of children suffer from a major depressive disorder, with 8 per cent of adolescents, mainly females, affected.
Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London treats more than 1,500 children from the Middle East each year.
“Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions worldwide, including the Middle East,” said Dr Daniel Stark, a clinical psychologist.
“It is being increasingly recognised in younger people, so it’s important for parents to know that depressed children do not always look like depressed adults.
“Looking at the scientific literature, young people with a physical health condition are often more likely to experience depression compared to their peers. Mental health has the biggest impact on quality of life.”
As in adults, depression in children can be the result of a combination of factors, which may include friendship difficulties, challenges in school, stressful life events and family factors.
Physical symptoms can be fatigue, weight loss or gain, sleeping difficulties and finding it difficult to concentrate. Children with depression may wish to withdraw from day-to-day activities they once enjoyed.
Dr Eve McAllister, a clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street, said transitions or changes in a child’s life may trigger a mental health difficulty.
“Parents may see these challenges arise following times of change, such as moving school or moving home, or moving to a new country,” she said.
“If your child has become very worried about speaking in public, asking and answering questions in school, and wants to avoid social gatherings at home, then they may be experiencing social anxiety.”