World Mental Health Day is a chance to reassess what we can do to look after our wellbeing
Everyone should help when it comes to mental health
It happens each time I go home to Australia – friends and family take me out for coffee to pick my brains about whether or not they should follow in my footsteps and head abroad to work and travel.
Over the years, the only thing that has changed during these social outings is my response. Years ago I would eagerly encourage any of them seeking my advice to take the plunge and soak up what life abroad has to offer. Now, however, my advice has become more circumspect.
“Look, man, it is not easy,” I told my old friend Wissam on my most recent trip home. He’s considering a move to Abu Dhabi to teach. “Yes, it is a great and safe city, and there is a lot to enjoy, but the expat-life needs a certain amount of inner strength if you are going to make the most out of it.”
As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I thought to myself how much my old self would have berated me for being such a killjoy. But after eight years abroad this is the sensible, considered me talking.
This week marked World Mental Health Day, which got me thinking about how living abroad can be littered with psychological landmines. Organised by the World Health Organisation, the day is one of many global initiatives aimed at raising awareness and offerings methods to help those struggling to build inner resilience.
The landmines I mentioned are not so much traumatic emotional events like relationship breakdowns, but instead the cluster of smaller mundane things that often trigger deep waves of depression and subsequent uncertainty.
Back in August I met up with a new French Moroccan friend of mine, Maya. She had just arrived in the capital to take up a teaching position, but shortly after our meeting, she went off the radar. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that she messaged me and sheepishly explained that the flu had taken hold of her, causing her to spiral, and that she was consumed by feelings of despair and loneliness. These took her a good three months to emerge from.
And here is the rub, the mental health risks to those living life abroad are rarely discussed, and they are often not considered a legitimate concern.
The common consensus, certainly among the people I spoke to, is that the momentous decision to uproot one’s life is ultimately viewed as a lifestyle choice, therefore any problem is thought solved by “simply going back home”. While that option may be available to some, anyone who has lived in the UAE for a small amount of time will realise that a vast majority of residents here don’t have that economic luxury – and I am not just referring to the country’s labourers.
In my opinion, the onus is on us as a society to look after one another – this presents an opportunity for the UAE to play a major role when it comes mental health. And, indeed it has been doing so in various ways. The fact that Abu Dhabi was ranked the world’s safest city recently by the data collection website Numbeo is a triumph for the mental and physical health of the capital’s citizens. Meanwhile, various UAE federal bodies have drawn up plans and facilitated studies to find new and innovative ways to support the mental health of its population.
But this fight cannot just be managed by way of a trickle-down approach; companies public and private need to step up and contribute to the wellbeing of their employees. Recruiting an expert from abroad is not a guarantee that the job they are taking will be a success. It is only once a person is settled in the country that they are able to truly shine. Companies should expedite that transition by having internal processes in place to help them acclimatise, ranging from connecting them to social and sporting groups to language classes.
We also have to get involved, because we all know that settled colleagues means a more positive workplace. Hence, my advice to the community here is that businesses should take that extra step and invite staff to socialise with one another, whether it be a weekly football match, dinner circle or card night.
With all of this in mind, I have decided that new policy in providing realistic measured advice to anyone asking me about life abroad. I also told the aforementioned Maya that the next time she slips and “falls in that hole”, to give me a call and we can grab that coffee and I will listen more and talk less.
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