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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Anniversary of Louis's death is a reminder of the challenges of negotiating an increasingly complex world

Vital progress has been made in raising awareness of mental health issues but more could be done to ensure sufferers do not fall through the cracks

Louis Smith, a 15-year-old pupil at the British School Al Khubairat, took his own life in 2013. Courtesy Smith family
Louis Smith, a 15-year-old pupil at the British School Al Khubairat, took his own life in 2013. Courtesy Smith family

Next week marks five years since the death of Louis Smith, a bright, popular 15-year-old student at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi who took his own life.

Louis had been loved at home and school and showed no indication of suffering from depression. As his parents Lisa and Ross have said in interviews with this newspaper since that day, December 14, 2013, there were no warning signs.

My own family exists in part of the same orbit as Louis’s and the last time I remember seeing him was at a sixth form open evening a few weeks before his death. Louis was standing with his parents; we were there with our eldest son, as hundreds of students and their families milled around in the school hall, waiting to speak to teachers about life in sixth form. We chatted briefly about A Level options and our respective plans for the upcoming holidays before being pushed by the tide to our next meetings. I can’t tell you how often I have thought about that evening in the years since Louis’s death and how it is impossible to reconcile it with what happened only days later.

Over the years, his parents have spoken eloquently about Louis and his legacy. They deserve great praise for this. Despite the obvious pain they have endured, they continue to work to develop solutions for young people in the UAE. In the weeks after his death, they co-founded the Louis Smith Foundation. Their objective was to establish a telephone helpline to provide a “safe space” for teenagers to call when they don’t want to confide in their parents or friends. They are working with the relevant authorities to bring their vision to reality.

They are committed to completing their mission because, as they said a few years ago: “Teen suicide is a growing problem all over the world, and it’s a problem here too – it’s just that nobody wants to talk about it. The statistics are very worrying and we believe they are only the tip of the iceberg.” The story of Abhimanyu Sadasivan, a 16-year-old Sharjah resident who took his own life in 2014, could also be cited here. Like Louis, there were no warning signs, save for some anxiety about exams.

These examples highlight the challenges that families and societies face all over the world. While there is much work to be done, there has been progress made in the UAE.

At Government level, the establishment of ministries for happiness and tolerance and, indeed, the appointment of Shamma Al Mazrui as Minister of State for Youth Affairs, make it clear the direction the Government is moving in.

As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, wrote at the time of those appointments: “Our target is to make happiness a lifestyle in the UAE community as well as the noble goal and supreme objective of the government...The formula is straightforward – national development based on core values, led by youth and focused on a future in which everyone achieves happiness.” There is, of course, a strong correlation between happiness, tolerance and healthy communities.

Matching that effort, the country has sought to build a top-class healthcare infrastructure. It should be said that the picture around insurance for mental health provision is sometimes unclear, but it is obvious that there is now greater understanding of such issues within the system and that arrangements are improving. That work must continue.

Other, less formal structures give further hope.

This week, we heard about a “buddy plan” at a school in Dubai. The scheme is designed to promote inclusivity and to ensure pupils do not fall through the cracks. Schools all around the country are developing wellness and mindfulness programmes.

Today, the next Darkness into Light fundraiser event will be held in Abu Dhabi. The voluntary organisation raises funds to support those who cannot afford to see a psychiatrist or psychologist, the cost of which is often not covered by health insurance. All of this is vital progress.

Any discussion about mental health issues in this country tends to be accompanied by a rallying call to break the taboos that surround them. That cry still needs to be heard. These should not be empty words.

We live in an increasingly complex world and the mechanisms that are required to survive in that always-connected, social media-dominated environment are only going to become more difficult to formulate. More and more of us will suffer with depression, anxiety and stress. Communities, societies and governments will need to mitigate those problems together. Even something as simple as stopping to chat with a friend and finding out how they really are can make a difference.

Commenting recently on social media, Louis’s mother Lisa asked those who read her post to wear a flash of orange, his favourite colour, on December 14, as a mark of solidarity for those who have suffered the effects of suicide and depression. It will be my honour to do so next Friday. I hope you will do the same.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National