While COVID-19 rules were relaxed on June 19 -- the UK’s ‘Freedom Day’ -- the mental health of some expatriates in the United Arab Emirates is suffering in the face of a longer wait to visit home.
Louise Lewis, a British woman who has lived in Dubai since December 2017, spoke to Al Arabiya English about how she has been made to feel like a “criminal” by the UK’s travel restrictions affecting its own citizens.
She also spoke about how the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic led to a deterioration of her mental health, driving her to make an attempt on her own life.
The UAE has been on the UK’s ‘red list’ for travel since January 29th, meaning Britons traveling from the Emirates cannot enter their home country without first quarantining in a hotel for 10 days on entry at a cost of around $2,400.
Alternatively, travelers can stop over in an ‘amber’ or ‘green’ country for 11 days. Prohibitive costs and work obligations, however, have made both options inaccessible for many.
Travel restrictions were reviewed by the UK Government on July 15, and it was decided that the UAE would remain on the ‘red list’. The list will be reviewed again on August 4.
Lewis was visiting her family in the UK in March 2020 when the pandemic began. She became stuck in Liverpool, England away from her husband, who was alone in Dubai.
Looking after her mother-in-law, who was recovering from cancer, as well as her father-in-law, who has diabetes, as well as her two young children at the height of a national panic over the new virus, she felt an immense burden.
When she managed to make it back to the UAE in July, the shock of adjusting to wildly different circumstances had a devastating effect on her mental health.
“I think it was all just overwhelming,” she said. “It was like kind of like everything settled far too quickly.”
Lewis suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental health condition that affects the way emotions are processed.
“I’d spent six months being scared. I was trapped in the UK, I didn’t know who was at risk, who was vulnerable, what was going to happen to my mother and father-in-law, my family and the kids.
“My husband was by himself. I was wondering, what if he gets sick? What if he catches COVID? He would be in hospital by himself, if that was to happen.
“And then all of a sudden I was back [to Dubai], and it wasn’t as restrictive. It felt like there were more answers. It was a little bit calmer. It wasn’t as chaotic, but it didn’t feel normal anymore. So it was like I was reaching out for the chaos.”
Around a month after she arrived back to Dubai, Lewis says she made a serious attempt to take her own life.
She sought professional help and with a combination of medication and therapy, says her mental health has improved since that low point.
Even so, she worries about when she will next be able to see her family in the UK.
“It did terrify me. Because I am a million miles away, basically, and at the moment it’s not so easy to get home.”
While Lewis believes that Dubai’s handling of the pandemic has been good, the UK’s treatment of its citizens has been “poor”.
“I feel like I’m being treated like a criminal,” she said. “I own properties [in the UK], I pay taxes over there and I’m still not allowed to go there, even though I’m a citizen there.
“It makes me quite angry and frustrated but also out of control. Like there’s nothing I can do to change that. It’s just really frustrating.”
Kes Smith-Green is a British wellness coach who lives in Dubai and says he has worked with people who have attempted suicide after not being able to travel to visit family.
He spoke to Al Arabiya English about the mental health issues affecting expatriates in particular, and the importance of having a close support network and dealing with negative situations that arise in life.
“The problem is that very few people have support networks here,” he said. “They might have family, but it’s their immediate family, like their wife or husband, the children.”
Smith-Green added that often, people suffering with mental health issues will not feel able to turn to their closest family members for support for fear of being judged.
He also stressed the importance of physical contact when seeking support for mental health issues.
“To connect with a human is all well and good over Skype and Whatsapp but everyone needs a hug now and again… but obviously with what’s been happening over the pandemic, we’ve moved away from that,” he said.
“We seem to have lost the skill of talking to people as well,” he added.
For people suffering with their mental health, Smith-Green recommends using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) techniques to learn how to process negative emotions caused by situations that are out of their control.
“There’s always going to be a plus and a negative to everything, and it’s how we interpret our thoughts and feelings,” he said. “That’s the whole aim of things, to understand that our thoughts and feelings are who we are, but our actions caused by them are not.”