Schools tasked with flagging depressed pupils to authorities and parents

New child protection law could help prevent suicides, though teachers must be trained in spotting the signs.

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DUBAI // The new legislation to protect children from abuse and neglect instructs schools to look out for troubled pupils and has a long-term focus on removing the stigma from depression and mental health issues.

If suicidal tendencies are spotted in young people or a suicide note is discovered, school staff must immediately alert the authorities and parents, according to the law enforced this month that applies to children up to the age of 18.

Parents and experts welcomed the law and called for in-depth training of teachers.

“It is important that schools advise children on how to manage stress and provide increased levels of support and counselling services to help children during difficult periods. Schools can work collaboratively with parents supporting children during stressful times,” said Dr Yaseen Aslam, consultant psychiatrist and medical director of Lighthouse Arabia.

“It’s absolutely fantastic the new legislation explicitly mentions these factors so parents, teachers and counsellors can be educated about signs and symptoms of common psychiatric disorders that can occur in children, about signs of risk that trigger alarm bells so children can be supported and teachers are aware of what to look out for.

“We should have the right support structures and mechanism in place to make children feel they can always approach somebody to discuss and share their inner feelings.”

Highlighting the suicide of Indian teenager Abhimanyu Sadasivan two years ago, government officials have said that, under the new law, the school would be held accountable if parents and authorities were not informed about a pupil’s suicide note.

Abhimanyu, 16, who attended the Indian High School in Dubai, hanged himself on March 2, 2014, five days after writing a lengthy suicide note on a chemistry exam paper in which he detailed the pressures of the Indian Central Board of Secondary education system.

When he did not appear for a maths test on March 2, his parents were called to the school and told that teachers were waiting for him to ask him about the note. Abhimanyu’s body was found in the family’s Sharjah apartment by police.

“It would be a lot different with the new law because it would have been the duty of the school teacher to raise the alarm with the school headmaster,” said Khaled Al Kamda, director general of the Community Development Authority, the principal body overseeing child rights’ protection.

“By law, they would have to report that the child needs help. Not acting on the message is really something the law takes seriously. It comes to the point of negligence, that the signs that caused the child to commit suicide were neglected. It was the responsibility of the headmaster and teacher to talk to the parents and have a serious session with the student immediately. They should have taken measures to read the message properly and act on it.”

The school did not respond to requests for comment.

Training teachers is vital, said Lisa Barfoot-Smith, mother of Louis Smith, 15, a pupil at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi who took his own life in 2013.

His parents set up the Louis Smith Foundation to support teenagers struggling with depression.

“Mental health issues, in general, are debilitating and, if these issues are raised, it can help save a child’s life. If every school is able to do this and monitor students that they think have issues, talk to parents, talk to the child and refer them on to any other help, then it is a fantastic thing.”

rtalwar@thenational.ae