x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Asking teenagers is the first step

The disconnect between young people and their parents may be widening, but it is a gap that can be bridged. Sadly, mental health issues continue to be taboo in Arab societies, even ignored in many cases by parents.

In June 2009, a leading psychiatrist called on the UAE to compile data on suicides in the country. "Internationally the rates of suicides are going up and it is worrying that the UAE doesn't have any hard numbers," said Dr Yousef Abou Allaban, a psychiatrist from the American Centre for Psychology and Neurology. "We don't know how to target the problem because we don't know how large the problem is."

Lack of data is too often a stumbling block to solutions. Two years later, we now have statistics on the number of teenagers who have at least contemplated suicide, and it makes for grim reading.

As reported in The National yesterday, a new survey has found that one in every six teenagers has considered ending their lives at some point. "Having that many kids contemplate suicide is definitely shocking," said Rebecca Williams, a school counsellor at Greenfield Community School in Dubai.

That was just one of the findings of the Global School-based Student Health Survey, which was prepared by the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey, administered by the Ministry of Health, studied the responses and behaviour of teenagers aged 13 to 15.

Many young people say their parents remain oblivious to their problems or what they do in their free time. Truancy, smoking and indulging in illicit substances are issues that teenagers are unlikely to broach with any authority figure. Bullying is another subject that many teenagers are not forthcoming about.

The disconnect between young people and their parents may be widening, but it is a gap that can be bridged. Sadly, mental health issues continue to be taboo in Arab societies, even ignored in many cases by parents.

Trained counsellors in schools are part of the solution, although unfortunately school budgets are being cut when new services should be added. But the real solution is for society to be more aware of the problem. This student health survey does not only show problems that we should be aware of - it provides the starting point for reaching out to teenagers.

Under social, personal or academic pressures, many teenagers end up feeling abandoned and depressed with no one to turn to. A change in attitude by parents, teachers and society at large is needed to recognise that a boost can help them to outgrow these problems. Just ask anyone who has ever been a teenager.