The law against suicide prevents suicidal people and their families from seeking help, doctors say.
People who attempt suicide can be fined up to Dh5,000, jailed for up to six months, or both.
The legislation “can deter people and their families from seeking help for fear that their loved ones will be arrested or put in jail”, said Dr Yousef Abou Allaban, a medical director and consultant psychiatrist at the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi.
Just recently a man in Dubai received a one-month prison term and a woman, also from Dubai, was given a one-month suspended sentence for attempting suicide.
However, the law was not always enforced if psychological illness could be shown, Dr Abou Allaban said.
“An attempted suicide victim is admitted to the hospital, where they will receive psychiatric treatment. The individual will be under police custody for 24 hours,” he said.
“Once it is determined that the individual acted this way because of a psychological illness, the case is sent to the medical board and the individual is released from any fine or penalty.”
However, people still avoided seeking the support they needed for fear of incrimination.
“The police are still involved, and for someone who is suffering from depression, it only adds to their pain and agony,” Dr Abou Allaban said. “When someone reaches such a level of desperation, they need to know that there is help available and that this is not a crime.”
Article No 335 in the UAE penal code stipulates that a person who attempts suicide is subject to “imprisonment that does not exceed six months, or a fine that does not exceed Dh5,000, or both”.
Yousef Al Bahar, of the Dubai law firm Al Bahar & Associates, said the legislation was not rigorous enough.
“In many instances, the judges only give fines or a maximum prison sentence of one month, [although] the law only stipulates a maximum period of six months,” he said.
“A more deterrent penalty, a compulsory jail term of a minimum period of six months, along with the fine, should instead be imposed.”
Mr Al Bahar said the verdict should also include a compulsory rehabilitation programme to prevent future suicide attempts.
In July, a 46-year-old Indian housewife was sentenced to a one-month suspended sentence for slitting a wrist and swallowing nearly 50 paracetamol tablets.
And a 35-year-old Syrian man was sentenced to one month in prison for attempting suicide because of money problems.
Dubai police reports show that there have been 31 suicide attempts and 25 suicides so far this year. In 2010, they reported 67 attempts and 58 suicides. Officials acknowledged that not all cases were reported.
Col Ali Ghanem, the director of the Bur Dubai police station, said that although he understood the sensitivity of the issue, he was still required to refer all cases to public prosecution.
“Each person needs to follow the laws of the country one lives in, and to [try to]commit suicide is punishable by law and Sharia,” he said.
While the police had the right to detain those who had attempted suicide, they only did so when they felt individuals might harm themselves again, he said.
Dr Biniam Tesfayohannes, a consultant for the emergency department at Abu Dhabi’s Al Mafraq Hospital, said that when the hospital received an attempted suicide, the priority was to save the patient’s life.
“They are looked after the same way as any other patient,” he said. “We first attend to the patient’s physical or medical problem.”
Police were on hospital grounds around the clock, Dr Tesfayohannes said, to collect information on injuries including self-harm.
“The victim rarely volunteers the information, so we turn to the relatives for help,” he said. “Once the patient has recovered, the psychological component is addressed.”
Financial and relationship problems were the main causes for suicide, Dr Tesfayohannes said.
Hospitals were required by law to report suicide attempts, but in cases where a patient posed no threat to others, doctors said they tried to provide help instead.
The line between doctor-patient confidentiality and the responsibility of a doctor to report an attempted suicide was the crux of the problem, Dr Abou Allaban said.
He said his centre had a treatment programme for those who had suicidal thoughts “where we provide them with daily consultations and the support they need”.
“People must not view suicide as a doomed destiny to end one’s life, but a cry for help,” he said.