Depression stalks Emirati students

Nearly one in four Emirati university students may suffer from depression, a rate at the upper end of global levels, a new study shows.

04/01/2010 - Abu Dhabi, UAE - Dr. Justin Thomas, an Assistant Professor at Zayed University, has been studying depression among Emiratis for the past two years.   (Andrew Henderson / The National) *** Local Caption ***  ah_100104_Professor_Depression_0008.jpg

ABU DHABI // Nearly one in four Emirati university students may suffer from depression, a rate at the upper end of global levels, a new study shows. The two-year research project was meant to find links between thinking patterns and depression to better prevent the condition.

But while studying 450 students at Zayed University, researchers also found a "surprisingly high" rate of depression. The study found that 20 per cent of the students were likely to be suffering from "moderate" depression and three per cent showed "severe" depressive symptoms. "The results were very surprising," said Dr Justin Thomas, an assistant professor for natural science and public health at the university, who led the study.

"Initially I had to go back to the literature because I thought, 'This is just too high'." Rates for depression globally range from about 1.5 per cent of the population in Taiwan to about 20 per cent in the US. Most of those surveyed in the study by Dr Thomas were under 25, the average age of onset for depression. The expectation was that the rate of depression among the students would be lower than was found, he said.

However, recent surveys in the region have also show a high prevalence of the condition. A study in Kuwait, published late last year, found 10 per cent of university students were severely depressed and 14 per cent moderately depressed. A study of Emiratis over the age of 60 published in 2004 found a depression rate of about 20 per cent. Dr Thomas said the cause of the high depression rate in the Gulf may be due to "cultural transition" and the upheavals caused by rapid development.

"I expected the UAE to be nearer the middle of the global range," he said. "But when there's change there's always loss, and the rate of depression is linked to loss. In this case it may be a loss of connection to family, to tradition, to how things used to be. That's one theory." That theory gets some support from a survey conducted among elderly Emiratis which split the results geographically. In Dubai, the rate of depression was found to be 29 per cent, far higher than in Al Ain and Ras al Khaimah, where rates of development have been gentler.

Another unexpected result of the study was that the results were similar across gender lines; globally, rates of depression among women are usually higher. Dr Thomas said that Zayed University women might be a "biased sample" because of a sense of achievement in having reached the university. "One of the reasons hypothesised is that if in the society historically there have been limited opportunities for women to go to university, women that make it will be relatively more psychologically healthy," he said.

The purpose of the survey was to discover if certain "thinking styles" could predict depression. Those with "dysfunctional attitudes" such as closely tying their self-worth to achievement and acceptance from others or those who respond to sadness by focusing attention on the cause of the mood, are "powerfully" linked to higher instances of depression, the research showed. Dr Thomas said because of the correlation between dysfunctional attitudes and depression, "you can identify people who think in this way" and categorise them as at-risk. "This means you can focus on prevention rather than curing depression," he said. "The way in which people think can be changed."

Dr Thomas argued that it was important for educators to work with the health sector to ensure young people developed healthy "thinking styles" and prevent mental illness. The Ministry of Health recently began a study to isolate psychological problems suffered by teenagers in schools. Psychologists are increasingly looking at preventive measures because the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020 depression will be the second-leading disability-causing disease in the world.

Delegates at a mental-health conference in Dubai in June announced that 75 per cent of mental illness in the UAE is linked to depression and anxiety.