Recent data published by the World Health Organisation about suicide in the UAE (Global School-based Student Health Survey 2010) indicates that 15.5 per cent of students age 13-15 seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months, with about 13 per cent actually attempting suicide during the same period. While some believe these figures to be too high, others think they could be even higher, since suicide is less likely to be cited as a cause of death in a Muslim country. Whatever the true figure, as a parent it's important to be informed.
What makes a young person suicidal?
Teenage suicide is a serious and growing problem - in the UK it is the second-highest cause of death in young people after accidental death. "The teenage years can be an emotional and stressful time," says Clare Smart, an adolescent counsellor at LifeWorks, Dubai (www.lifeworksdubai.com). "There is pressure to succeed and young people may struggle with self-esteem issues and feeling left out." When a number of challenging factors coincide, such as sexual abuse, substance abuse, a bereavement or bullying, some teenagers feel overwhelmed and are at risk of attempting suicide. Often these teenagers have experienced depression.
Signs of a suicidal teen
Although suicide is relatively rare and difficult to accurately predict, Smart suggests parents take the following warning signs seriously:
• Talk of dying or disappearing.
• Change in personality - your child may become sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, or apathetic.
• Change in behaviour, poor concentration or poor self-care.
• Change in sleep patterns.
• Change in eating habits, either loss of weight or overeating.
• Loss of control, or erratic behaviour.
• Low self-esteem - feeling worthless, guilty or ashamed.
• Hopeless feelings about the future.
• Giving possessions away.
What to do if you fear your child may be suicidal
• Ask how they feel "Talking about suicide does not make it more likely to happen. It may be what the young person is looking for and they don't know how to start the conversation themselves," advises Smart.
• Be patient they may be angry or refuse to talk. Suggest they talk to someone else or try writing things down if they find it an easier way to communicate.
• Listen this is the most important thing you can do. "Treat your teenager with respect and try not to be judgemental or critical. It is important to try to raise their self-esteem," says Smart.
• Reassure explain that desperate feelings are very common and can be overcome. Things can change and people do get better.
Clare Smart talks about how she helped a suicidal teenager
"P was 17 years old when she took an overdose of paracetamol. She told her mum immediately because she was scared about what she had done. Her parents took her to the hospital where she was assessed by the psychiatrist, diagnosed with depression and given antidepressant medication.
"I initially visited P in the hospital, at her parents' request, and we agreed that she would have regular appointments of counselling as well as follow up with the psychiatrist.
"P had conflicting emotions about the suicide attempt: she felt disappointed that it hadn't worked, as she was in pain emotionally and felt hopeless about her future and her impending exams. She also felt some relief that she was OK and wanted to feel better.
"When she was discharged from the hospital, P attended regular appointments with me where she began to understand the causes of her depression and we used cognitive behavioural therapy to help P change her negative thinking about herself and her future. P began to view things more positively, she started to see her friends again, felt able to concentrate on her schoolwork and play netball.
"P felt able to take her exams and got really good grades. The depression improved and after some time P was able to reduce her medication and make plans for going to university, something she was very excited about."