In Focus: Is it really social?

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In Focus: Is it really social?

People may turn to social media to help combat loneliness and depression, but this could be doing more harm than good, say local experts.

By Sarah Young

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Published: Sun 31 Mar 2013, 9:22 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 9:26 AM

Psychiatrist and managing director of the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi, Dr Yousef Abou Allaban said loneliness and depression were commonly experienced by expatriates, and depression was the most prevalent condition of patients at their centre.

Lack of social support was a big contributor to this, and Allaban warned against a reliance on social media to replace face-to-face interaction: “(Social media) is good in the way it’s easier to connect with friends and relatives, but even if you’re communicating, it doesn’t provide you with any (real) emotional support. The fact is, now people spend so much time thinking they are connecting but they’re not getting any real interaction with a real human face, and this makes them more vulnerable to being isolated. It’s fake interaction.”

He said going outside, seeing and interacting with real people, and spending time with them definitely provided far more support than chatting on email or networking sites such as Facebook.

“Although (social media) has some benefits, I believe there is more of a negative impact on (people’s) social skills and ability to interact.”

This was even more the case for teenagers and young people who were still developing life skills, he said: “They need to learn communication skills, how to adapt, interact and deal with challenges in the real world and life. But (those who spend a lot of time on social media or online) don’t — and so they become less skillful and able to deal with life.” editor Gail Livingstone-Potter said it was very common for expats to feel lonely or isolated: “As an expat, you are transplanted to a new country with no friends, family or familiar way of life and it takes time to adjust to this. If women move here as part of a family they tend to hit a wall at around the six-month point. Prior to that, they are focusing on sorting out their home, kids and husband and then when everything’s settled, have a ‘What about me?’ moment.”

She said in some cases this could lead to anxiety and depression but if the loneliness was acknowledged and steps taken to deal with it, “this could be a great help in preventing a downward spiral.”

Expats really needed to focus on making their own friends and having an active social life, which was why the forum organised activities like coffee mornings each week.

While it was great social media offered so many different ways of keeping in touch, this could sometimes lead to homesickness and a feeling of “missing out on things going on that don’t necessarily warrant a trip home like birthday parties or anniversaries.”

“That’s why having a social life in the country you are living in is so important to fill these potential gaps in real life,” she said. “It’s really all about maintaining a healthy balance, between time spent on the internet and face-to-face interactions. It’s normal to feel a bit sad and like you’ve missed out on something back home when you see photos on Facebook but you need to activate your social life here to have your own things to look forward to and talk about as well.”

On the other hand, social media had made it easier to find like-minded people in Dubai, she said: “There’s a group for everything from pottery-making to skydiving and everything in-between. With a click of your mouse you can find a group to try out and join and it’s all so easily accessible and easy to find. We know from feedback we have had on our forum that it has been a lifeline for so many people over the last 12 years.”

Stress, by-product of fast-growing society

A “stressful society” is contributing to higher levels of depression, says a local expert.

A recent study of 6,000 patients, conducted by the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology, showed depression disorders were the most common reaching 35 per cent, followed by anxiety disorders on 17 per cent.

Psychiatrist and managing director of the centre in Abu Dhabi Dr Yousef Abou Allaban said that in his experience of working in countries such as America, anxiety was usually the number one affliction, “but here we have higher depression.”

This was likely more prevalent because it was such a “stressful society”.

“People don’t realise the amount of stress they go through from the nature of the jobs here, and the lack of social support they have.”

It could also be hard to navigate the health system, and many people found they had to see a number of different doctors before they found the one they could trust, Allaban said.

Stress was also a by-product of such a fast-growing society. Many companies here had started out small and expanded quickly, and a lot of people struggled to cope with understanding the changes or new policies that resulted in: “That constant change creates major stress.”

While many of these patients were expats, there were also a growing number of Emiratis who were happy about the awareness created and the destigmatisation of this mental illness, he said.

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