x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Treatment first for attempted suicide

People at risk of suicide have trouble getting treatment and help in the UAE, for cultural and legal reasons. It's a tragic situation and it needs to be changed.

A 27-year-old Emirati woman approached psychiatrist after psychiatrist in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai seeking help for her 17-year-old friend who had repeatedly attempted suicide. And, at one office after another, she was met with refusals. Professional mental health specialists were too afraid to deal with the issue of attempted suicide because of legal issues.

"She cannot get help here," the concerned friend told The National last year. "And her family would not help her to understand."

The single most important factor in suicide prevention is counselling. But this 17-year-old's case is not an uncommon situation in the Emirates, where suicide remains a culturally taboo topic and attempted suicide is a criminal offence under Sharia. A doctor treating a patient who has attempted suicide must report the incident to authorities or risk being prosecuted, leading to a prison term of up to five years.

As The National columnist Hassan Hassan has argued in these pages, in practice the law sometimes has had the opposite of the desired effect. The Catch 22 is that doctors, if they take a case, have to choose between breaking the law or violating patient confidentiality. Not surprisingly, doctors and mental health professionals have repeatedly called for the law to be re-evaluated.

It is progress simply that the topic is being discussed in the open. As The National reports today, the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology's conference in Abu Dhabi dealt with issues of suicide risk assessment and prevention, particularly for teenagers, that are common across the world. But it is also a good opportunity to acknowledge the situation at home.

Attempted suicide is often a cry for help, an act of desperation from an individual who will not be swayed by the law. Instead, urgent intervention by family, friends and health professionals can save lives. "This issue needs a psychological solution more than a legal solution," said Nashwa Al Qubaisi, an Abu Dhabi-based lawyer. "They need to go to rehab, not prison."

Punishment, particularly when it deters counselling, often only makes the situation worse. After a person is healthy, there will be enough time for him or her to consider the terrible error of attempted suicide.