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Awareness on the rise around mental health insurance in the UAE

March 2017

By Compare, buy and use your health insurance

March 09, 2017 | 12:30 | Dubai

One in twenty depressed in the UAE

Feeling sad or anxious occasionally is a normal part of everyone’s life. Clinical depression however, is the more severe form of this, marked by frequent mood swings, and a significant loss of interest in normal activities and relationships for extended periods of time. Mental depression, a serious medical condition, is considered as the world’s leading cause of disability by the WHO.

While this epidemic has gripped developed countries over the past several years, its ugly head is now emerging in the Arab countries. According to Khaleej Times, four to five per cent of the UAE population suffers from clinical depression, and in Qatar as many as one in five people are affected by mental health issues.


Depression – What Causes It?

Clinical depression is an extremely complex disease condition and two people displaying the same symptoms may have a completely different root causes triggering the depression. Hence the treatment that works for one of them may be completely ineffective on the other, even though on the outside they seem to be showing the same signs of the ailment.

Researchers have over the years have narrowed down several factors that can lead to clinical depression. According to a paper on ‘What causes depression’ published by the Harvard Health Publications, a few of these key factors identified are as follows:

  • Brain Function

Researchers studying clinical depression advocate that the several aspects of brain structure and chemical function like nerve cell growth and functioning of nerve circuits are major contributors to depression. There is evidence that the limbic system, area of the brain that regulates moods and emotions, works less efficiently during depression. Drugs that treat depression usually work on improving communication between nerve cells, enabling them to make them run more normally.

  • Genetic Factors

People who are genetically more predisposed to depression, are more likely to have the symptoms manifest in stressful situations. This can be observed by some studies carried out on twins. These studies show that for identical twins – if one has a bipolar order, there is a 60-80% chance of the other getting the condition. However, for fraternal twins the percentage drops to 20% as they share only half of their genes. Extensive research is being carried out in this field to identify which genes are involved in causing depression.

  • Temperament

Temperament of a person is defined as his/her natural predisposition – it is a combination of mental, physical, and emotional traits of a person. It is seen that if a person is easily excitable, pessimistic, or has a high levels of harm avoidance, the person is more prone to getting clinically depressed.

  • Stressful life situations

We all face stressful life situations at different points of time in our lives. Some are caused by unforeseen circumstances causing extreme grief like the death of a family member; others may be triggered by daily struggles like work pressures, financial difficulties, marital spat etc.

Stressful situations can trigger a chain of chemical changes in the body, which usually are short lived. However, for some people who are more vulnerable, sensitive and genetically predisposed, these changes, manifested during stressful circumstances, may be more long lasting and may lead to clinical depression.

  • Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition which patients suffer from low moods and depression during certain months of the year. It is attributed to lack of exposure to sunlight, because of which the level of certain brain chemicals like serotonin and melatonin get lowered, thereby triggering depression. It is often referred to as ‘winter blues’ as it is prevalent in most countries during the winter months.

However, in the UAE it occurs in reverse. This condition plagues the country in the summer months, when residents are trapped indoors, due to the unbearable heat.

  • Medications & Medical Problems

The stress of having certain chronic and long lasting illnesses is known to lead to clinical depression. It could also be caused due to the changing hormone levels in the body with certain ailments like hyperthyroidism.

Depression and mood swings are also a side effect to some drugs like steroids or blood pressure medication.


Despite insurance, medical treatment is generally expensive

A huge problem in the UAE is that people tend to look down upon mental health issues. Due to the stigma attached very few people come forward to seek treatment. Thereafter, making the difficult decision to reach out for help with depression or any other mental health issues is only the first stumbling block that these patients face. The next main challenge is meeting the hefty cost of therapy. Even with health insurance, the expense of co-pays and high deductibles can soar up to unmanageable amounts.

Medical and health-insurance coverage depends on the insurance company, level of coverage and diagnosis. While some policies now cover psychiatry, psychology or family therapy, there is wide variation.

The Thiqa insurance plan offered by Daman to Emiratis provides full access to free mental healthcare at more than 50 public and private locations. However, Daman’s comprehensive premiere plan for non-Emiratis is not as extensive. Though the plan includes psychiatric services, the value of the coverage is a nominal AED 3,500 a year, which is insufficient to meet the medical expenses. Most other insurance plan options available for expatriates do not cover psychiatric treatment or sessions with a psychologist.

For instance, the Abu Dhabi National Insurance Company’s medical insurance, does not cover psychiatry treatment & psychological counseling for bronze-tier members and gives a cover of only up to AED 1,500 for its silver-tier members. The general plans of the other insurance companies such as AXA Gulf, Alliance Insurance etc. do not include psychiatric treatment but have options to take these as add on services.


Exercise is a potent and free alternative

Exercise is now being touted as the first line of defense in the fight against depression. It is a cheap and natural way to battle depression. Exercise benefits mental health by naturally increasing the body’s production of ‘feel good’ chemicals such as Dopamine and Seratonin. Similarly, administration of certain medications can also replicate production of these chemicals, but can be addictive and can have serious side-effects including weight gain and panic attacks.

Regular exercising helps ease depression in a number of ways such as –

  • Releasing chemicals like endorphins that trigger positive feelings in the body
  • Improving sleep, which helps fight the stress
  • Strengthening the immune system and providing health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, protecting against heart diseases, etc. This reduces depression.


Apart from these physiological benefits, there are a lot of psychological advantages of exercise that help you battle depression.

  • Boosts self esteem:

Meeting exercise goals or milestones, gives a sense of achievement, and boosts self-confidence. Looking fitter and slimmer also improves self image.

  • Acts as a vent and a distraction

Exercising regularly keeps negative thoughts away, lowering the levels of anxiety and depression.

  • Increases social interaction

It provides an avenue to meet new people and socialize. Just exchanging smiles and pleasantries can help get into better frame of mind and improve one’s mood.

  • Gives you a healthy alternative

Depression can often led to negative actions like excessive drinking, substance abuse and becoming aloof. Exercising gives you a healthy way to deal with your depression. It improves energy levels, lowers blood pressure and strengthens the heart.



The serious health and economic implications of depression and mental health issues are still not fully recognized and responses remain inadequate. There is an urgent need for public health and employment policies to give higher priority to mental health issues and to raise awareness of this. Mental health problems generate huge costs not only for healthcare systems but for society more generally.

The search for accessible, low cost and appealing treatments for depression is gaining pace the world over, with the increasing popularity of physical activities and positive psychology in the Gulf Cooperation Council and UAE. Exercise is being considered the first line of defense in the fight against depression as a lot of research has been published on the same hailing its benefits over costs.

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