Last week, the UAE announced far-reaching reforms to personal and family law. Within the overhaul was the decision to formally decriminalise suicide and attempted suicide. Although the old law that criminalised the acts was infrequently used, the fear of prosecution might have led some to think twice about speaking out about their problems and seeking help.
Mental health professionals like myself in the Emirates have, therefore, celebrated this timely reform. We, more than most, appreciate that suicidality is treatable. It is a passing storm – violent and destructive, but also impermanent and transitory.
Data compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health, which reviewed suicidology research spanning the past 40 years, suggest that among the survivors of suicide attempts, around nine out of 10 will make no further attempts on their own lives. The take-home message is one of resounding hope and optimism: if we can make it through the darkest days, the vast majority of us will re-emerge into the light, with our will to live fully restored and intact.
Statistics are useful, but they are cold and impersonal. They fail to capture the human tragedy and triumph at the heart of surviving suicide and overcoming suicidality. To fully illuminate the hopeful dimensions of the issue, case studies are required.
When I was around four years old, my mother made a serious attempt on her own life. Fortuitously, a family friend found her just in time. I can only recall tiny snippets of what happened in the immediate aftermath; these are some of my earliest childhood memories. For example, I remember the very first night of foster care, and I remember being taken to see my baby sister, who had been placed with a different foster family.
I’m unsure how long we were all separated, but, thank God, my mother survived. She got help, grew stronger and proceeded to gift me a heartful of happy childhood memories, as unforgettable as they are innumerable. After my mother’s recovery, she also went on to get a degree in philosophy, write several books and set up a publishing company, all while simultaneously, and single-handedly, filling mine and my sister’s childhoods with love and kindness, guidance and wisdom.
Decades later, I would go on to work as the suicide prevention lead at a large mental healthcare trust in the UK, Lancashire Care NHS trust as it was then known. In this role, my team and I would investigate suicide attempts and completions by people in contact with our services. Our mission was singular: reduce the number of suicides and suicide attempts across our locality.
We succeeded in this and were honoured with a Health Service Journal award in 2006 for our efforts. However, the most rewarding part of this role was when we learned about individuals who were once suicidal now doing amazingly well. To see someone go from “not wanting to live” to being filled with a love of life is one of the most dramatic and beautiful transformations anyone can witness.
After investigating hundreds of cases in my suicide prevention role, I learned that suicide is very often predictable and preventable. What is more, if we can prevent an attempt or a fatality, the survivors can go on to live lives that are, for the most part, happy and healthy, creative and productive. Central to this outcome, however, is that the survivors of suicide receive help and supported and are given opportunities for growth.
The latest reform for decriminalisation of suicide in the UAE is opportune; mental health services have sufficiently matured. It will greatly facilitate national suicide prevention efforts. Also helpful is the UAE’s imminent Rescuer Protection Law (“Good Samaritan law”). This new legislation will encourage able bystanders to assist in all types of medical emergencies without fear of legal consequences. Together, these changes will contribute to the prevention of suicides and making it easier for people to overcome suicidality. The magnitude of this shift is beautifully articulated in the Quran (5:32): “If anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of humanity.”
Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National
Editor's Note: If you or anyone you know in the UAE is struggling with thoughts of suicide, support is available, toll-free, over the phone or on WhatsApp at 800-4673 (HOPE), where specialists are available in both Arabic and English.