In spite of the many means we have available to ‘stay connected’, increasing isolation is playing havoc with the mental and even physical health of many across the world.
Where once, communities stayed connected with closer family ties, neighbourhood relations, social gatherings, today’s modern society is becoming more and more disconnected. This comes with huge consequences to mental health, say experts, not least, to expats who are living far from home, without the usual support network they might usually have behind them – something that may be felt even more at during the festive season.
Dr Mohammad Yousef, specialist psychiatrist at Aster Clinic in Muteena, says that while ‘the Dubai expat life is seen as an envy for many … loneliness or a feeling of being disconnected is a common feeling for a lot of people who move to the UAE from other countries’.
He adds that ‘what keeps a person well is strong emotional and friendly bonds, close relationships with a tightly knit group’.
‘When one moves away to a new country leaving behind friends and family, life can seem to be rather lonely. Despite where you live and how you live, life will throw at you challenges, and tackling them without the support of family may be overwhelming. A lot of times the challenges could be the simplest of everyday issues, but without the support mechanisms, people tend to push their feelings within themselves, until they become a burden.’
He said that being away from home and the resultant loneliness can have multiple consequences, and that ‘stress, anxiety and depression are common mental health issues seen among expats in the UAE that can have detrimental impacts on the mental and physical health of an individual’.
‘Stress, anxiety and depression can manifest into various physical and mental health concerns in an individual. These conditions can result in a wide range of physical symptoms like muscle pain, headaches, tension, gastric problems, increased heart rates, insomnia, low energy levels and elevated blood pressure levels,’ he says.
‘Stress leads to weakening of the immune system and makes you more prone to colds and flu. In the case of women, the condition may cause painful menstruation.’ These symptoms affect personal relationships, the ability to concentrate at work or even drive them to self destructive addictions such as smoking.
Long working hours and financial pressures specific to a UAE lifestyle, job insecurities, also take their toll, said Dr Yousef. ‘A lot of times, expats come here leaving behind their families, seeking a job and hoping for a better life for themselves and their families. However, the lack of a healthy social life is a major causative factor issues like loneliness among expats. In their home countries, meeting family and friends regularly would be a tradition where every occasion or holiday would mean a family gathering. However, when they move outside, the first challenge they face is making new friends. Moreover in a country like the UAE, which is strictly based on a routine with people working 10-12 hours daily, it leaves no time for them to have a social life. Each person is busy in their individual lives, and the weekend calls for some ‘me’ time. In addition to this, people face are faced with financial pressure, issues of job security, stress at work, all of which are contributing factors to making an individual feel disconnected or stressed.’
The continued stigma around mental health remains a challenge, he added.
‘The main challenge with mental health issues is the social stigma associated with conditions like anxiety and depression. There are only a handful of people who seek professional help in the initial stages when it is the easiest to treat and cure the condition. People consider it to be a part of their life and try to get over it through self-medication or turning towards smoking. People need to be made aware that these are health concerns just like a physical health problem.’
Help is available however, he says, as long as people can be open-minded to seeking it. ‘There are support groups here in the UAE to support mental health conditions [but] the wider section of the society still prefers to not talk about it. Support groups in fact are sometimes a part of treatment modalities. People need to be made aware that it is okay to feel low sometimes or experience feelings of anxiety and depression. Moreover, the fact that it is okay to seek professional help.’
Chastity O’Connell, mental health counsellor at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics, says there is no doubt that physical and mental wellbeing links directly to social isolation. ‘There are mental health conditions that have direct connection to social isolation, for example social anxiety disorder and selective mutism. And then there are other conditions, such as depression, problematic drinking, comfort eating, and so on that can certainly be linked to isolation.’
Technology, she says, is a huge factor leading to a sense of disconnection.
‘Our disconnected, or one could also say, overly digitally-connected society, can have a major impact on our feelings of loneliness and isolation in so many different ways and for different reasons. We cannot underestimate the impact of technology on how we communicate and interact with each other.
This impact ranges from the subtle to the major. Never before in the history of the world have we been more seemingly connected to one another, however, this connection can be somewhat of an illusion. We interact, of course, but do we actually connect? Part of the difficulty is that our over engagement in phones and computers, occupies us and can prevent us from engaging in small, but meaningful ways with the people directly involved in our lives.
‘Additionally, and perhaps more seriously, we lose touch with what true friendships can feel like.’
This technological sickness, she says, is of most concern to the younger generation, for whom technology is the social norm. She says: ‘There is fascinating research on the impact of mobile phones on child development. Babies and children who are talked to, touched, cuddled, and attended to, thrive. And so, in subtle ways; phones at mealtime, distracted engagement with our children, all of this can have a long-term impact on our relationships with our children and their own ability to relate to others.’
For expats, the issues can be magnified. ‘People coming in for therapy often raise the issue of feeling like they are drifting along as they haven’t established or found their community or support system,’ she says.
‘For those individuals, this loneliness can feel especially difficult. Not only do they feel the loss of their community of origin, but they can feel somewhat disconnected from that community when they do speak to them. For many expats in the UAE, coming to this country can represent a massive step up in their quality of life. For those that are able to connect with people here, whether it be friends from work, a religious group, cycling group, craft groups, or mums and dads groups, these connections can definitely help. I also think that in these expat environments we forget how uneasy the process can feel when we are trying to ‘make friends’ in a new place. For many people, the last time they ‘made friends’ was in grade school or university where it was much easier to do so.’
Juan Korkie, Clinical Psychologist at the Lighthouse Arabia, says feeling that connected to those around us ‘is an essential part of being human’. ‘This sense of connection provides the experience of belonging and being at home, which we all need to thrive,’ he said. ‘Being connected with others, both in everyday life and significant relationships, plays a central part in overall mental health and well-being. Research has identified a clear link between loneliness and mental health problems. Chronic loneliness may both lead to, and exacerbate, the development of mental health problems.’
Moving away from home can be a major trigger, he says. ‘Moving to another country to live and work always involves an increase in loneliness. As an expat we give up, or forfeit, being embedded and connected. Very often the full impact of this can only be fully appreciated and felt when the move has been made,’ he said.
Even for those who don’t realise how important family and familiarity is for them, it can be a huge displacement, everything from knowing the local geography to understanding the language. Technology is creating blurred lines in communication now, he says. ‘There is an interesting process of connection and disconnection surrounding the use of technology that can be seen in most cities around the world. ‘It is rare to go anywhere without seeing people on their smartphones and devices. What is interesting is that most of these people are in fact ‘connecting’ in terms of chatting on Whatsapp, messaging, and so forth. However, they are disconnected from their immediate surroundings.
‘Although technology is therefore great in being able to chat, Skype and so forth with friends and family on the other side of the earth, it comes at a price. That price is an increase number of people not fully being present and connected to the moment, to the here-and-now, and to those around them.’
Feeling alone? Dr Yousef has some suggestions for you.
1. If you have moved to the UAE and have taken up a new job, make the effort to get friendly with your colleagues.
2. Join a gym, go for a swim, these activities will help keep your mind and body fit and healthy.
3. Be social, do not get completely engrossed in work alone. Build relationships that are strong by meeting new people even outside of work.
4. Maintain a healthy balance between your personal and professional life.
5. Do not feel sorry for yourself and sulk about your situation. Do not pity yourself for not having friends or a ‘social life’.
6. Make your presence felt in gatherings and be open to welcoming conversations.
7. Do not shy away from seeking help and do not live in denial because these problems won’t fix themselves. Know that it is fine to be afraid but also realise that issues like depression and anxiety are absolutely treatable. You do not have to live with it.