Doctors call for changes to UAE suicide laws
Doctors are calling for the laws on suicide to be reconsidered to remove a catch-22 situation that forces them to choose between breaking the law or breaching patient confidentiality.
Suicide is proscribed in Sharia and in UAE law, meaning any doctor who treats a person who has threatened or attempted suicide must alert authorities or risk being prosecuted.
That, however, breaches the bond of confidentiality between doctor and patient - and opens the suicidal patient to arrest.
According to the federal penal code, a person who attempts suicide can be jailed for up to six months or fined as much as Dh5,000, or both.
Failing to inform police that a patient is considering or has attempted suicide could be regarded as aiding them - an offence that carries a penalty of up to five years in jail.
The penalties are even stiffer if the patient is a child or person unfit to make his own decisions. In those cases, anyone helping them could even be charged with attempted murder or even outright murder.
However, according to Dr Ahmed Abdulzaher, legal consultant for the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, not all things prohibited by Sharia should be considered crimes.
"Not all sins have punishments, so we shouldn't consider every sin a crime," he said.
"It seems clear in the hadith that mentioned suicide that punishment for suicide is intended for the afterlife," Dr Abdulzaher said.
Nashwa al Qubaisi, an Abu Dhabi-based lawyer, believes the law does not deter people from suicide. "After a doctor reports a patient as being suicidal, the patient would then be required by the police to sign a statement that they would never repeat the attempt," she said. "This is futile. This issue needs psychological solution more than a legal solution - they need to go to a rehab centre, not prison."
One 27-year-old from Al Ain told The National that she had approached several psychologists and psychiatrists in Al Ain and Dubai in an attempt to help a 17-year-old friend who has repeatedly attempted suicide. All, she said, had refused.
"She cannot get help here, and her family would not help her to understand."
Dr Deema Sihweil, a clinical psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai, advised the woman to refer her friend to a hospital as soon as possible. "When we have extreme suicidal patients, we must let others know it is serious, so for her she needs to get people involved; if it is extremely severe they should take her to the nearest emergency room."
The number of recorded suicides in the UAE is very low, partly because it is such a taboo and they are often not reported as suicides.
There were 86 cases in Dubai in 2009, and in 2008 the capital recorded 66 cases. Dr Sihweil said that while the centre deals with all patients with strict confidentiality, the authorities have to be informed about severe suicidal cases.
"The UAE rules are still not clear on suicidal thoughts," she said. "Legally, we are not obliged to help suicidal patients, but ethically we do offer help."
Dr Dolly Habbal, clinical psychologist at Gulf Diagnostic Centre, deals only with patients considering suicide, not ones who have actually attempted it.
"Treating suicidal patients is difficult; their judgement is impaired, they need support. Everything is strictly confidential," she said.
"These people are suffering, they should be hospitalised."
Dr Yousef Abou Allaban, a consultant psychiatrist and director of the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi, believes suicidal thoughts are a psychiatric illness that should not be considered a crime. He called for the law to be revised.
"It is very unfortunate this law exists," he said. "Suicide is not a crime, it is a stage of despair. These patients would need immediate help, which they will not find in prison."
As it stands, he said, the law "discourages people from seeking help".
"Psychiatrists are in a dilemma. In one hand, ethically we have to help, and on the other we must respect the law and the country we are in."
Describing himself as an active Muslim, Dr Allaban said the hadith on suicide "does not differentiate whether the person who commits suicide does so from a psychiatric illness or as a result of escaping a crime".
In the case of someone escaping a crime, he stressed he was "with the law". He said religious people, judges, lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists and police need to all sit together to reach a reasonable solution.
"Policemen are not doctors," he added.
Published: December 10, 2010 04:00 AM