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Depression among OFWs: ‘The struggle is real’

DUBAI: Most Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) suffer varying levels of depression because they carry “trigger factors” with them when they left the Philippines to work abroad.

This, according to Philippine Consulate officials as well as practicing Filipino psychologists here who said such factors include marital issues, financial problems and missed career opportunities, meeting work demands, conflicts due to language barriers; absence of family support network and uncertain job security, exacerbated by worries about failure.

History of depression

Social Welfare Attaché Judith Yadan Bacwaden, who have handled approximately 20 cases of depressed OFWs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi since she assumed post almost two years ago, said most of those afflicted “already have a history of depression even before they left for the UAE.”

“Majority sa mga kaso, hindi lang dito nag-umpisa. May mga problem na tinatakasan sa Pilipinas tapos nagpunta dito, nagkaruon ng hindi magandang karanasan kaya na-trigger,” Bacwaden said.

Added, Labor Attaché Felicitas Bay: “Depression among OFWs may be attributed to their personal problems – marital, financial, career, among others – prior to their work overseas.

“The fear or apprehension that one cannot provide adequately for the family, cannot address marital or family concerns, or the current employment is not what was offered and the job left at home was better than the current – these will affect the state of mind of OFWs.”

Bay said loneliness and homesickness are also “contributory factors to depression especially for first-time OFWs.”

Meantime, Bacwaden said depressed OFWs are referred to a particular hospital’s psychiatric care after which they are repatriated if given the all-clear.

“We have to ensure na magaling na, then deretso na for repatriation. Nakikipag-ugnayan kami sa DWSD to contact the family and arrange a team para sa pagsalubong sa airport,” Bacwaden said.

She said she has come across cases that can be handled by “social work intervention alone.

“Pero ‘pag nakita ko na tulala na… hindi na kumakain… hindi na nakaka-usap, iba na, then I recommend psychiatric care,” Bacwaden said.

She said trigger factors are “multifaceted problems.” “Hindi nila ine-expect na ganuon ang magiging stiwasyon pagdating dito and then may mga problema sa Pilipinas,” she said.

Comfort zone is gone

Psychologists interviewed agree that Filipinos working abroad are more prone to episodes of depression than their counterparts back home. This, for the main reason that they usually do not have a strong support system, being away from their loved ones and living in the company of peers who also have their share of the anxieties working in a foreign land. What causes depression? What are the contributing factors?

Dr. Djonde Frega Ariz-Antiado, who teaches psychology in Dubai and practices the profession, said losing one’s comfort zone is among major factors.

“Overseas Filipino Workers regardless of gender and occupation, generally leave their comfort zone, including the significant support systems, which is their family, in search of better life for financial stability and better employment opportunity,” said Dr. Antiado, who regularly conducts counselling to OFWs during outreach missions including those at the Philippine Consulate General’s Office (PCGO).

“The loss of this significant support network causes a major stressor,” she pointed out.

Dr. Rommel Sergio, Psychology Associate Professor at Canadian University Dubai who also holds regular counselling with distressed migrant Filipinos, said OFWs are more vulnerable to depression because they are usually beset with problems.

“Depression is an extremely complex mental disease. It can happen to anyone especially if confounded with problems in the family, work, and personal life,” said Dr. Sergio, who was among 23 recipients of the 2016 Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas.

“Hence,” he added, “if one has been exposed to different circumstances and the emotional intelligence is weak, he or she can be stressed and eventually be depressed.”

For her part, Dr. Maria Jolit Angeline P. Malaya, school psychologist working with students of determination at St. Mary’s Catholic High School – Muhainah, said it’s all about the challenges that OFWs face and how they manage to face it head on.

“OFWs are among the ones most likely to suffer from depression owing to physical, mental and emotional challenges that living and working abroad bring,” said Dr. Malaya, who also is a mental health advocate who likewise regularly joins outreach counselling missions for OFWs.

Some of these challenges, she said, are “marital problems, homesickness, issues about finances, stress at work, inability to cope with the lifestyle or new environment and an abusive employer, which is among domestic workers where they experience not eating on time and lack of sleep.”

Symptoms of depression

 Dr. Malaya, who holds a Doctorate in Philosophy with a major in human resource development, said signs and symptoms of depression include the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, appetite or weight changes, loss of interest in daily activities, sleep changes, irritability, loss of energy, concentration problems, reckless behavior, unexpected aches and pains as well as talking about killing or harming one’s self.

Added Dr. Sergio: “Most clinically diagnosed depressed people have trouble in concentrating, remembering details, making decisions, restless, have feelings of guilt, feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, pessimism, hopelessness, insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or sleeping too much, overeating or appetite loss, and suicidal thoughts or attempts.”

Dr. Antiado said a recent survey by the International Journal Mental Health has indicated that expatriates experience a high degree of stress which in turn disrupts their social and emotional wellbeing and exposes them to higher risk of mental health problems.

“Meeting work demands – Filipinos do multi-tasking; conflicts due to language barriers; absence of family support network and uncertain job security. All these contribute to the vulnerability of OFWs to depression,” she said.

She said signs or symptoms of depression can be categorized as follows:

• Cognitive: Inability to think; memory lapses, difficulty concentrating and indecisiveness; recurring thoughts of death or suicide.

• Emotional: prolonged sadness, emptiness, worthlessness, pessimism, apathy, uselessness, persistent hopelessness.

• Behavioral: energy level subsides (lethargic) or decreased pleasure in all activities; and lessened physical intimacy.

• Physical: headache, bodily complaints like backache, constipation stomach ache.

Other factors

Dr. Sergio said there are also a number of different factors that can cause depression, ranging from biological to social and environmental ones.

He said factors that can increase an OFW’s risk for depression include: A family history of depression, certain medical conditions and substance use. Other factors that may play a role include childhood trauma, medications, life stress, poor self-esteem, and some medications, he said.

Who are most vulnerable?

Dr. Antiado said World Health Organization (WHO) recently conducted a survey, the results of which, she noted “indicated that those who earned least and who had least control of their jobs tended to be more depressed.”

“Most of the jobs of female OFWs (elementary occupations) are domestic helpers which is characterized as a 24/7 job where they risk facing different forms of abuse. Due to depression we read news of OFWs jumping off the windows and the like,” she said. Dr. Antiado said WHO surveys and current researches “indicate that women are more prone to depression; and is more pronounced between the ages 18 – 44.”

Added Dr. Malaya: “During our wellness program, I usually encounter OFWs who experienced domestic violence – traumatic such as physical, emotional and verbal abuse – that led them to run away and decide to seek help from the Philippine Consulate. “I had several encounters with them and it is really happening most especially among domestic helpers who decided to leave our home country for the sake of providing for their loved once.”

 ‘Marami sila’

Dr. Sergio indicated that depression is common among OFWs in the UAE. “Marami sila. Magkakaiba ng edad at kasarian. I am also doing private consulting through counseling and the figures of people having depression are really overwhelming,” he said.

 Dr. Malaya said nobody is safe from depression.

“Anyone can have it, most especially OFWs. We cannot be free of depression especially if things in our lives are not balanced and when life strikes us with problems and unexpected events,” she said.

Dr Malaya said there are actually different types of depression. She said there are major ones that can be experienced most of the day or every day.

“There are persistent depressions that last for two years and more. There is also what is called as bipolar, a disorder that consists of periods of mania or hypomania, where you feel very happy, alternating with episodes of depression (or melancholia),” she said.

What can be done

Dr. Sergio advised that OFWs feeling depressed (note the symptoms mentioned) should seek professional help as soon as possible.

“Consult an expert once they have seen the signs of depression. It is so important that one consults a psychologist so that proper intervention can be done. As they say, prevention is better than cure. It is good to detect clinically the depressive episodes so as to save lives of our compatriots,” Dr. Sergio said.

Added Dr. Malaya: “The most important thing is to accept that you go abroad wholeheartedly. OFWs need to be prepared with loneliness, homesickness and hard work.” She said the following could help a lot in preventing depression: exercise; good coping strategies; good communication with family; develop friendship at the workplace; a goal with your family as to until when are you going to work abroad; and community support.

Bay suggest a “strong faith in God; continuing communication with family, close friends and/or well-meaning co- workers; socialize – not necessarily attending parties – or engage in community, church or company activities.”

Photo courtesy of the Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi, UAE.


3 thoughts on “Depression among OFWs: ‘The struggle is real’

  1. Thanks sir Jojo for the article. For the readers seek professional help if you must. Seeing a psychiatrist or going to a mental facility does not mean you are insane. You just need someone to help you.

    Liked by 1 person

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