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A closer look at behavioral health and the impact of COVID-19

Many people worldwide suffer from behavioral health issues – some in silence due to the stigma surrounding them. In the UAE, where more than 80% of the population are expats, things are no different. Behavioral health issues continue to plague society, affecting individuals and businesses.

It’s no surprise that COVID-19 is making matters worse – self-isolating and worrying about health can trigger behavioral health issues in individuals. In this Pacific Prime Dubai article, we’ll take a closer look at the role of COVID-19 on behavioral health and advise employers on what they can do. After all, healthy employees are more productive.

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Differentiating between behavioral health and mental health

It is common to hear ‘behavioral health’ and ‘mental health’ used interchangeably, but it is crucial to note that this is not quite the case. Strictly speaking, mental health is defined as an individual’s ability to cope with the normal stressors of life. On the other hand, behavioral health looks at the impact that behaviors have on an individual’s health.

Examples of mental health disorders:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Examples of behavioral health disorders:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Gambling
  • Eating disorders
  • Sex addiction

In many cases, mental conditions can be a root cause of behavioral health conditions. For instance, a person suffering from anxiety may cope by overeating, binge drinking, etc. Therefore, it can be difficult to separate the two from each other. However, it helps to know the difference between the two and how they relate to each other.

State of mental and behavioral health in the UAE

Like many other countries in the world, the UAE deals with both mental and behavioral health conditions – with the top five main issues in the country being anxiety disorders, substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, and schizophrenia. There is still quite a lot of social stigma surrounding these issues, which leads to difficulty in reporting figures and statistics.

While anyone can succumb to these issues, the expat lifestyle lends itself especially vulnerable. Dr Mohammad Yousef, a specialist psychiatrist in the UAE, said in Friday magazine that while “the Dubai expat life is seen as an envy for many, loneliness or a feeling of being disconnected is a common feeling for a lot of people who move to the UAE from other countries”.

Increased awareness of behavioral and mental health has led authorities to take action. Just a few months ago, the UAE Ministry of Health Prevention announced plans to launch the biggest national program for integrating mental health in all primary healthcare centers. It aims to prevent common mental health disorders, as well as provide early diagnosis, support, and treatment.

Impact of COVID-19

According to BlueCross BlueShield, an association of US health insurance companies, 93% of people had at least one change in behavior since the COVID-19 outbreak began. When it comes to negative behavior changes, ‘eating more food’ is the most common one with 47% of people doing so.

In the UAE, a similar pattern may be likely. As Nadia Brooker, a counseling psychologist and specialist in eating disorders in the UAE, said in The National, “Utilizing food as a means of coping with stress has a strong psychological underpinning”. This is because stress can result in higher cortisol levels, which increases appetite and craving for feel-good foods.

Feel-good foods are things like chocolate, sweets, crisps, etc. What they do is provide a spike in “happy chemicals” like serotonin and dopamine, which can distract people from any negative emotions they may be experiencing. Furthermore, as COVID-19 coincided with Ramadan, overeating could be worsened for practicing Muslims who fast during the day.

For UAE residents who feel that COVID-19 is taking a toll on them, there are many organizations and networks out there providing support. There is also a dedicated mental health service providing counseling services by phone, chatbot, and email. Incidentally, telehealth’s popularity in the UAE has taken off due to the pandemic.

Employer response

Even before COVID-19, counselors in Dubai told Gulf News that workplace stress was the number one reason that people are reaching out for help. Now, as employees have been returning to work post lockdown, employers have been given guidelines to ensure the physical safety of employees. Mental health, however, is not covered in these guidelines.

Providing mental health support to employees is something that both socially responsible and financially prudent employers should consider. According to WHO, the global economy loses USD $1 trillion a year due to lost productivity stemming from mental health issues. Furthermore, for every dollar spent on mental health, they can save USD $4 in lost productivity.

There is a range of different things UAE employers can do to support mental health. These include Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that provide free counseling sessions for employees and/or families, stress management programs and activities, as well as health insurance that includes mental and behavioral health conditions.

Get in touch with Pacific Prime Dubai

If you’re looking to implement mental health benefits in the workplace, you can check out this detailed guide created by our team. But as COVID-19 has brought upon a lot of workplace changes already, it may be a good idea to leave employee benefits to the experts. Here at Pacific Prime Dubai, we work closely with businesses to implement tailored employee benefit programs.

With over two decades of experience as a global insurance broker and employee benefits specialist, we have a lot of expertise to offer. From group health insurance plans to wellness programs, your needs and budgets remain our top priority as we implement a solution for you. We also provide you with an online Prime Care portal to access your employee benefits plan.

Contact our team today for a no-obligation quote!

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Content Creator at Pacific Prime Dubai
Suphanida aims to demystify the world of insurance by creating informative and engaging content. As a wordsmith, she spends the majority of her day writing and editing website content, blog posts, in-depth guides, and more.

Outside of work, Suphanida enjoys traveling to new places and immersing herself in different cultures.

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