A wide-ranging study of the psychological impact of Covid-19 in the UAE found more than a third of people felt their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic.
Of the 4,426 people who responded to a survey by academics from the University of Sharjah, Zayed University and the United Arab Emirates University, 36 per cent reported increased stress due to work, home or financial matters.
Psychological evaluation was completed via a series of questions to assess the impact of the pandemic and the perceived support available.
It revealed 27 per cent felt severe psychological stress, while up to 63 per cent said they felt horrified, helpless or apprehensive.
Women, younger people, part-time workers and university graduates were more likely to report mental health damage during May and June when the survey was completed, two months after the UAE reported its first death.
“The study reflects the increase of patients we are seeing at our centre with issues such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder all common,” said Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counselling psychologist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai.
“We know first-hand from our patients how factors such as financial insecurity, home-schooling, working from home, health concerns and saturation of news coverage – particularly via social media – have had severe repercussions for many.
“Feelings of isolation, loneliness, panic, fear, hopelessness and grief have for many been overwhelming, impacting their sense of purpose and identity.”
Survey questionnaires were distributed via LinkedIn, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Those contributing lived across the seven emirates, with 85 per cent completing the survey in Arabic, providing a cross-section of society and how it had been impacted by the coronavirus.
Many said they considered the pandemic an opportunity to establish better support and bonds between family members.
The findings have been reflected in similar research conducted across the Gulf.
An online survey conducted among Saudi adults during the pandemic reported mild to moderate rates of anxiety among the general population, while a significantly higher level of anxiety was observed among married respondents.
In Bahrain, an online depression anxiety and stress index showed a third of participants had suffered psychological ill-health.
Lebanese citizens, meanwhile, reported an increase in PTSD symptoms during the fourth week of the nation's Covid-19 quarantine period.
By comparison, 54 per cent of those completing a similar study in China said they felt a similar negative impact on their mental well-being.
“It’s also worth pointing out that the very fact this study has taken place reflects the increasing maturity in attitudes towards mental health in the UAE and across the region,” said Ms Dharamshi.
“It is increasingly being recognised as a vital part of community health and wellness, and research such as this helps to bring it into the mainstream conversation and encourage people to tackle issues head-on, instead of feeling stigmatised.
“We welcome more studies of this kind to help better understand and support positive mental health and wellbeing among the UAE’s population.”
In a recent address during the Mohamed bin Zayed Majlis for Future Generations, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed encouraged more openness in mental health discussions to rid the associated stigma from society.
Sheikh Abdullah said the only shame connected to mental health was in avoiding its discussion.
“This last year, many people experienced challenges that created a perfect recipe for anxiety and stress,” said Dani Hakim, co-founder of Safe Space, a corporate mental health service that offers professional anonymous online counselling sessions to employees of businesses who pay a subscription fee.
“At Safe Space, we have noticed a considerable uplift in our corporate clients’ interest in more proactive solutions.
“We've seen a rise in demand for wellness strategies and employers looking for digital or technical solutions outside of the usual company network.
“Not everyone feels comfortable talking about personal issues with their managers or peers.”
Government mental health support phone lines and web chats offered support for those in crisis from trained volunteers.
Online workshops established by providers like Safe Space offer anonymous support and encourage more people to seek help.
“We often hear from clients that their employee assistance programmes or crisis hotlines are underused,” said Ms Hakim.
“We wanted to create a daily drop-in service to address anonymity issues.
“It helps employees keep an open dialogue about their mental health while providing context to their questions.”