Shutterstock Image Credit: Supplied

On January 1, while the UAE was still waking up from the late-night revelry of New Year’s Eve, somewhere in Dubai a resident was contemplating ending his life.

The story has sent shock waves through the UAE community and pulled the conversation on mental health out of exile. The expat, who was later identified as Chris after he appeared on a local radio show, was saved thanks to a quick-thinking friend from Facebook who raised the alarm with authorities following a post on the community group, British Dads Dubai.

In an interview on the UAE radio station Dubai Eye 103.8 last week, Vic, the person who saved the day also credited a community of concerned members on the group who reached out with a helping hand after seeing the ‘disturbing’ post. Dubai Police were finally brought into the picture, who traced the writer to his home in the nick of time.

Chris also spoke about finding himself alone and depressed over the holidays, which counted as one of several factors that led him to think of committing the act.

“I got to Christmas Day and I was all on my own. By the time NYE came about … it came to a point that I wanted to kill what was inside me. It was winning that last 24 hours,” he said.

While Chris is currently getting the help he needs with the support of the community and Dubai Police, his story further sheds light on the popular theory that many do face a post-festive slump around late December and January.

The US, Canada and several other countries mark January as National Mental Health Awareness month, providing support to those who suffer with mental health issues and depression around the same period.

It was also such a theory that was explored nearly 15 years ago by a British psychologist who had hit upon a formula that factored in the January blues to calculate a day that he deemed was the most depressing day of the year, a day he termed ‘Blue Monday’.

In 2005, Dr Cliff Arnall used pseudoscience to come up with a formula that calculated the third Monday in January was the most depressing day of the year.

The formula took into account the weather or the seasonal affective disorder that can affect people in the northern hemisphere during the winter months. It also accounted for debt, with many accumulating Christmas debt over the holidays, along with factoring in timing, time elapsed since making (and perhaps failing to keep) a New Year resolution, low motivational levels and the need to act.

The conclusion? That the third Monday in January is when we simply fail to beat the blues.

While critics may debunk the Blue Monday phenomenon, there are several others who welcome a pretext of a day can spark a conversation on mental health. Dr Arnall also revisited his theory more than a decade later, attempting to detract from the negativity that surrounds Blue Monday.

In an interview with British daily, The Independent, Dr Arnall stated it was never his intention to make the day about endings.

“Whether embarking on a new career, meeting new friends, taking up a new hobby or booking a new adventure, January is actually a great time to make those big decisions for the year ahead,” he said in the interview.

Beat the Monday blues

Yet, studies show that Dr Arnall was not completely off the mark. Statistics Netherlands published a report in the early 2000s that the highest suicide rate was observed on Mondays and the lowest on Saturdays. According to the study, Mondays saw an average of five people commit suicide in Netherlands. The rate went down to 3.5 on a Saturday. On Sundays the suicide rate was just under the average of the period of 4.2 a day.

According to a UAE psychologist, festive debt also plays a large role in the Blue Monday theory.

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Dubai-based psychologist Tanya Dharmashi Image Credit: Supplied

“The festive season can leave families with serious money worries in January and February, resulting in emotional and psychological responses such as fear, worry and self-blame. In severe cases, this can lead to or further exacerbate conditions such as depression, stress and anxiety, resulting in intense and often overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, a low mood and changes in sleep and eating patterns. It can also generate behavioural changes such as irritability and misdirected resentment towards family and friend,” according to Tanya Dharmashi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at Priory Well-being Centre, Dubai.

Taking steps to eliminate debt can help people to take a step back and re-evaluate their lives. Removing this burden can provide a new sense of freedom — both physically and mentally — and enable them to value the simple, yet most important things in life such as family, friends, personal development and good health.

- Dubai-based psychologist Tanya Dharmashi

Ras Al Khaimah resident Anthony J. Permal also pointed at social media for fuelling the overall sense of anguish that people with depression experience.

“As someone who suffered from depression I can tell you one thing: If you’ve had a terrible previous year, facing 11 more months of the same can defeat you mentally. Even if you’re not struggling, the social expectation of a ‘new year, new me in terms of financial, health and relationship goals can be enough to cripple someone who just doesn’t have the means or help to do so,” said the head of digital, at a pharmaceutical company.

“In the weeks running up to New Year’s Eve, people start posting their year’s achievements and successes as well as all the cool things they’ll do in the coming year, and the travel plans they have. For someone who is struggling with depression, self-esteem issues and failures in their personal life, these can really trigger more negative thoughts about one’s life, and for those people who are really at the deep end, sometimes being surrounded by this can trigger an emotional response to stop the feelings of inadequacy, failure and, ultimately in their eyes, an worthless life,” explained Permal.

According to 2017 statistics, the World Health Organisation estimates that close to 800,000 people die from suicide each year.

That’s around twice as much as homicide, which stands at approximately 405,000.

A 2014 study in Queensland, Australia, looking at the years 1990 to 2009, found a statistically significant increase in suicides on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. Sweden as well has reported a similar finding. Both were reported in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry.

“Unfortunately, we live in a society where we are sometimes forced to follow timelines set by others and at least 60 per cent of those timelines are impossible to achieve. The very fact that the statistics show that the number of suicides increase is because of the pressure to display growth and evolution. We need to set our own timelines and do our best to achieve them as that is what is required in the longer run,” said stand-up comedian and actor Nitinn R. Miranni.

Dharmashi agreed, calling January ‘fraught’ with stress trigger while urging people to taking ownership of the problem and successfully moving forward.

“January follows an extremely hectic — and sometimes fraught — festive season which can be extremely challenging for many of us, but especially for those already struggling with mental health conditions. Family pressures, social gatherings and the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves at this time can come to a head in January, resulting in a sense of exhaustion and anticlimax. It’s paramount that we all prioritise our mental and physical health on a daily basis, no matter the time of year,” she continued.

For British expat dad Chris, his depression, which he described as controlling 20 years of his life, had hit a new low without him realising.

“You are not yourself. You are being controlled by your depression. Your confidence dies. Your sleep pattern changes. You are hurting people around you. Ultimately, what I tried to do was I tried to kill the depression. Killing the depression meant killing me … I couldn’t find an excuse to stay alive,” he said in the radio interview.

Having suffered from depression and anxiety myself, my main aim now is to be a voice and a platform for those who are unable to come out in the open about it. It is very unfortunate that in the past we have looked upon therapy and psychological help as the last thing to do just before you being declared ‘mad’.

- Actor-comedian Nitin Miranni
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Nitin Miranni Image Credit: Latesh Lilwa

“People would just have a vague idea of what the mannerisms are and a standard checklist and then would many a times distance themselves from the individual. It is imperative that we create a safe space for individuals dealing with such hardships and be open to the idea to understand that h/she could be dealing with things which we don’t understand but showing concern and displaying inclusiveness.”

Taking the conversation mainstream

In recent years, celebrities such as talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, ‘The Good Place’ star Kristen Bell and Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone have gone public with their personal battles with depression, in a bid to normalise the conversation.

In 2014, Padukone spoke at length about her mental health, speaking to Indian daily Hindustan Times about how she reached out to her family for help.

“There were days when I would feel OK, but at times, within a day, there was a roller-coaster of feelings. Finally, I accepted my condition. The counselling helped, but only to an extent. Then, I took medication, and today I am much better,” she said in the interview.

Padukone went a step further and launched the Live Love Laugh Foundation in 2015, which aims to reduce the stigma around mental health and spread awareness. The non-profit organisation also launched a programme titled ‘You Are Not Alone’, in 2016, while working with Facebook to prevent suicides from being live-streamed.

“I applaud their bravery to be vulnerable and share,” Miranni said. “For many years people have had a set look, mannerisms, lifestyle attached with someone suffering from depression. Hence when such celebrities some out and share they break that myth of the ‘You don’t look depressed’ and ‘You are so famous and successful, what be wrong in your life’.

“We all have our battles, and like I always say, people have started becoming screensavers where everything looks perfect and happy but the truth is a click away. Using the platform to be useful is justifying well deserved success.”

Permal weighed in as well, saying that a celebrity face is exactly what is needed to take the conversation mainstream.

The more we see influential celebrities with a large scale social media following openly talk about their journey with depression, the more the conversation will become mainstream.

- Ras Al Khaimah resident Anthony J Permal

“Particularly in the case of regional celebrities. I’ve noticed there are far more celebrities from the subcontinent openly talking about their depression than in the Arab countries, and that says a lot about the stigma still surrounding this. Hence, I urge all celebrities to be open, let your story and journey inspire the millions who follow you to open up and seek help as well.”

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Anthony J Permal Image Credit: Supplied

Permal also had a message of hope for everyone.

“It’s 2020. The fact that it’s [depression] still a taboo conversation, particularly in the Middle East, is shameful, if not downright unacceptable. Unacceptable on the part of the people who mental health sufferers turn to, where more often than not men are told to ‘man up’ and ‘be a man’ and to ‘get over it’, and women are told to ‘focus on the family’ and ‘stop being so sensitive’ and ‘in our time we overcame this’.

“As someone who’s helped people get mental health advice and help, I can tell you there are thousands of men and women in our region who need help but are afraid to ask for fear of being ridiculed by their peers.”

Tips to boost mental health

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Meditate Image Credit: Supplied

The British Columbia Mental Health and Substance Use Services shares tips on boosting mental health.

1. Make social connections — especially face-to-face — a priority: This can include phone calls and engaging in a personal conversation with other people.

2. Get moving: Staying active is as good for the brain as it is for the body. Regular exercise or activity can have a major impact on your overall well-being.

3. Appeal to your senses: Listen to an uplifting songs, squeeze on a stress ball or take a nature walk.

4. Take up a relaxation practice: Yoga, mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing can help reduce overall levels of stress.

5. Sleep well: It matters more than you think. One way to get sleep better is to take a break from the stimulation of screens.

6. Get help if you need it: If you or a loved one needs support, there are many programmes and resources that are available to you.

Suicide decriminalised in Dubai

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Representative image Image Credit: Supplied

A recent strategy adopted by Dubai Police aims to look at people attempting suicide as victims, rather than criminals.

The ‘window of hope’ initiative has adopted a more progressive approach to mental health and rather than arresting people, Dubai Police is looking towards providing psychological counselling to victims.