A global school-based student health survey by the WHO and the Ministry of Health revealed shocking results.
One in six teenagers 'thought of suicide'
Hundreds of school pupils aged between 13 and 15 have been so depressed that they have seriously considered suicide, a survey has found.
The dramatic finding prompted a worried response yesterday from parents, psychiatrists, school counsellors and head teachers.
The results of the survey paint a picture of a generation of young teenagers who are misunderstood, depressed - and mostly left to their own devices.
Half say their parents have no idea what they are doing with their free time, and even more say their parents do not understand their worries and problems.
A third (35 per cent) say they have skipped school without their parents' permission, and two in five drink at least one can of fizzy drink a day even though they know it is unhealthy. Four in five say they smoked their first cigarette before their 14th birthday.
But the most chilling statistic relates to mental health. Of the 2,581 pupils surveyed from 52 randomly selected public and private schools across the UAE, 16 per cent - almost one in six - said they had seriously contemplated taking their own lives.
The Global School-based Student Health Survey (GSHS) was prepared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and administered by the Ministry of Health.
It was designed to assess the dangers facing children aged between 13 and 15, with questions on mental health, diet, hygiene, physical activity and smoking.
Almost a quarter (22 per cent) of the teenagers said they were bullied at least once a month and almost half (47 per cent) had been involved in a physical fight at least once in the past year.
"Having that many kids contemplate suicide is definitely shocking," said Rebecca Williams, a school counsellor at Greenfield Community School in Dubai.
Ms Williams said the other findings were not unexpected considering the age of the children surveyed and the universal existence of peer pressure.
"As for the rest of the results, smoking for example, this is the age when kids start experimenting and looking at different ways to rebel against family and school," she said.
Rachel Jex, a school nurse at Jumeirah Baccalaureate School in Dubai, said the pressure on children to succeed, from parents and elsewhere, can prove to be too much at that age.
"I work with a school counsellor who tells me quite often of the increasing numbers of children she sees who have issues needing psychiatric support," she said.
However, accessing that type of a support is often taboo in the UAE. Many parents find it shameful to admit their child might have a problem that requires the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist, she said.
Maha al Jaaberi, an accountant from Lebanon who lives in Abu Dhabi with her three children aged 9, 11 and 14, said her stressful lifestyle made it a constant struggle for one-on-one time with her children.
"In this country, usually both parents work long hours in a stressful job, spend time commuting and have no extended family support unit to help," she said.
Her family might have to move back to Lebanon soon after just four years in the UAE. "This transience, and moving the kids at a time when they need stability and rely on the friends they made, can certainly bring them down, and it's our job as parents to watch out for signs that our kids are depressed," she said.
Dr Fatma Abdullah, a non-resident research fellow at the Dubai School of Government, bemoaned the paucity of research on Arab mental health. "We don't address mental illness as we should, we focus a lot more on chronic disease when mental health is just as important," she said.
"Mental health professionals in a primary healthcare setting are absent and we don't have enough psychologists."
She said there was undoubtedly a correlation between bullying, low self-esteem and suicide - but more research is needed to formulate a coherent policy response.
"These kids who contemplated suicide: where are they are coming from, have they been bullied or abused, do they suffer from substance abuse, do they have family issues causing stress at home? Answers to these questions are needed for us to help."
The WHO estimates that half of all mental disorders start before the age of 14. Anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and behavioural and cognitive disorders are among the most common mental health problems among adolescents.
A 2001 WHO study estimated that about four million adolescents worldwide attempt suicide each year.
The Ministry of Health declined to comment yesterday on the survey results. "These are sensitive numbers that we choose not to discuss right now," said Dr Mariam al Matroushi, director of school health at the ministry.