ABU DHABI // It was on December 14 last year that the unthinkable happened to an expatriate family.
That afternoon, Louis Smith, a 15-year-old pupil at the British School Al Khubairat, took his own life.
The British teenager had shown no outward signs that he was depressed to anyone. Louis wanted to be an architect, and had chatted to his parents, Ross Barfoot and Lisa Barfoot-Smith, about what A levels he was thinking of taking.
Christmas was coming up and he was excited about the new PlayStation 4 he’d been shopping for with his dad. Louis’ presents are still wrapped and untouched.
Lisa, a housewife, and Ross, a lawyer, have spent the past five months searching for answers.
“It came as a complete shock to us,” said Ross, 36. “When he was at school, he was always telling jokes and laughing. The school had this book of condolence and there’s lots of entries from people in his year group mentioning his smile. Louis was an important part of a group of five or six very close friends, who were just as shocked as we were.
“And he looked genuinely happy, it didn’t look like a mask. He wasn’t one of those kids who looked insecure – he was quiet, but he seemed comfortable in being quiet.
“He’d just finished his mock exams, so he was a bit stressed about those. But he’d started to get results back and he was getting really good marks. So I don’t think he was any more stressed than a normal, conscientious teenager.
“We have two photos we look at now, one shows Louis just before he died and the other two months previously. The difference between the two is startling because he had changed from a child to a young man, everything about him is different. He’s always been short, but he shot up in height before he died.
“That age for boys – 15 – is a very difficult time. It’s when they’re transitioning from being a boy to becoming an adult.”
“Being with him every day, we didn’t notice that change at the time,” said Lisa, 45. “It’s only looking at these two photographs that we realise how big a change he went through.
“Louis was very conscientious, very loving. Half the time, I didn’t even have to ask him to do things like getting the shopping out of the car, he would just say ‘need a hand?’ Most 15-year-olds aren’t like that. So now, I think it’s what was underneath that we obviously didn’t know about, which he hid from everyone.
“I’m glad now that my three other children are quite vocal – if they don’t like something, they’ll tell me. Whereas Louis never would. He was always just so helpful.”
The morning of Louis’ death, the family decided to go to a friend’s house for lunch, then on to Ikea. Louis had been thinking about joining them. This leads Ross and Lisa to believe that Louis had not planned in advance to end his life that day.
Lisa said: “He didn’t want to come to Ikea but he did want to come for lunch with us. He said ‘you’re always out for hours – but I want to see our friends … yeah, I’ll come. Then he changed his mind. “We went for lunch and fortunately our two youngest children had a sleepover with friends, so weren’t with us when we came home.”
Ross said: "Louis had paused a movie on his laptop when he died – it was The Godfather, as he'd been going through classic movies.
“There is a proportion of society that likes to blame things like movies, songs or video games for encouraging certain behaviour in children or adults, but that doesn’t make somebody do something like this. I don’t know what was going through his head. I think he obviously lost his love of life somewhere along the way, but he never mentioned it to anyone.
“With Louis, we don’t think he would’ve gone to a health centre, psychiatrist or counsellor off his own back – even if there had been a counsellor at his school. He would’ve been too embarrassed. But he might’ve called an anonymous helpline.”
“If there had been a leaflet in his bag that day with a number on it for someone to talk to anonymously, he might have rung it,” Lisa said.
Such a helpline does not yet exist in the UAE for teenagers to turn to, but Ross and Lisa are hoping to change all that.
Since Louis’ death, they have read about five other teen suicides and two attempted suicides that have been reported in the newspapers in the UAE. They believe there are many more that have gone unreported. A study undertaken last year in Dubai by Dr Sami Mana Ahmad bin Ahmad Ali, a community medicine specialist registrar with Dubai Health Authority, showed that nearly one in five teenage schoolchildren aged 14 to 18 showed elevated symptoms of depression. The study looked at 1,289 pupils in 20 Dubai schools.
The World Health Organisation has identified suicide as the second leading cause of death in the 10-to-24-year-old age group, behind unintentional injury.
“Teen suicide is a growing problem all over the world, and it’s a problem here too – it’s just that nobody wants to talk about it,” Ross said. “The statistics are very worrying and we believe they are only the tip of the iceberg.
“So from losing our son and seeing other children are dying too, we want to do something, and we want to do it in Louis’ name to create a lasting legacy for him.”
Now, his parents are in the process of setting up a charity, the Louis Smith Foundation, with the aim of providing support to teenagers with depression.
“We’ve spoken to the Ministry of Social Affairs and they’re very keen for us to set the charity up. They think there is a real need for it,” Ross said.
“A lot of the time, teenagers just need somebody to listen to them. Over the last few months more and more health professionals in the UAE are calling for a dedicated suicide helpline. The UK has charities such as the Samaritans and the NSPCC’s Childline offering anonymous help 24/7. We want to set up such a helpline here. It would be non-religious, non-judgemental and fully run by volunteers who would all be trained listeners. The helpline will be 24 hours a day, seven days a week and dual language – English and Arabic.”
They also hope to expand the service across the Middle East.
“Teenagers go through the same issues here as they do all over the world, it’s just that here there is a serious lack of support for them,” he said.
“There is a very developed mental-health support structure. But the gap exists in identifying people who need the help, and getting them into that system. So the charity is going to act as the first line of support – it’s going to allow people to say ‘I have a problem’, and we can work with them to determine whether they just need someone to talk to, or whether we can guide them to go see a counsellor or refer them to a mental health clinic.”
They also aim to reduce the stigmas surrounding depression.
“[The charity] might allow people to admit ‘I’ve been hiding this for so long but I don’t need to be embarrassed about it’.
“It’s an illness. It should be viewed in the same way as, say, diabetes. If you develop diabetes, you think nothing about going to the hospital to get it treated. You don’t sit there thinking how ashamed you are that you have diabetes, and hide it away and not treat it because if you did that, it would just get worse until it became life threatening – and it’s the same with depression.
“We are a normal, very loving and open family and our children know that they can talk to us, and yet this tragedy still happened to us. It can happen to anyone. And I think that’s the scary thing.
“So what would we advise other parents to do? I genuinely do not have an answer. We all have to be vigilant, know what the warning signs are and look out for them. Don’t be afraid to ask blunt and outright questions of your children.”
They have already set up the Louis Smith Foundation Facebook page on which they post advice and messages to teenagers who may be depressed and contemplating suicide.
“That’s all we can do at the moment, until we get charity status. We’re just trying to let them know that they’re not alone, and there is someone there for them to speak to,” said Lisa.
“We want to go into schools to hold workshops and talks, so that anyone who thinks they might be suffering from depression or anxiety can know we’re there for them.
Unless steps are taken, Lisa believes suicide rates will continue to rise.
“Someone got in touch with me saying they’d like to help because they know lots of girls who have eating disorders and cut themselves – I think a lot of the time parents just don’t see it. That’s not a criticism of parents; if a child doesn’t want anyone to know they’re suffering they can hide it very well,” she said.
“Most people who are suicidal don’t actually want to die, they just want the pain to stop.”
Ross said: “I think one of the things we’ll have difficulty with in the UAE is people who believe that when you talk about suicide, you’re planting the seed of the idea into people’s minds.
“I was one of those people – so I didn’t want to tell our two younger kids that Louis had committed suicide, because I thought they didn’t need to know that those concepts exist in life. But I’ve realised now that was the wrong thing to do. So we have talked to them about it, but we’ve explained it in a way that a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old can understand, and allowed them to ask questions about it.”
Ross and Lisa know they have a lot of work ahead of them.
The first step is to organise a ball to raise awareness of the Louis Smith Foundation, which will be held at the Yas Viceroy Hotel on May 16.
Ross said: “It’s going to take a lot to get the charity up and running and it’s going to be a struggle in terms of what we can and can’t do within the framework of the law here. But we are committed 100 per cent to getting this done, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes.
“Louis still is, and always will be, part of our family, and we talk about him every day. We can’t bring him back. But if we can save one person through our foundation, then all the effort will be well worth it.”