Mental and physical fitness focus of evaluation

Previous WHO survey found 13 per cent of pupils have considered suicide while another study reported that 21 per cent are overweight.

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New measures intended to slow the rate of obesity among young people and improve the mental state of pupils will put the health of children in the spotlight. The Ministry of Health (MoH), which has jurisdiction over all emirates except Abu Dhabi and Dubai, will conduct a comprehensive review that, for the first time, considers the psychological and physical condition of pupils. Doctors in the northern emirates will assess thousands of children, while the Dubai Health Authority is indicating it will carry out a similar review.

Statistics show a high prevalence of diabetes and obesity among the nation's youth. Last month, The National reported children as young as seven were being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which usually strikes those in middle age. The long-term complications of the disease include cardiac and vascular disease, blindness and depression. In its 2005 Global School-based Student Health (GSHS) survey, the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that 14.4 per cent of pupils in the UAE were so worried about something most of the time that they could not sleep at night.

Another 35.2 per cent felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks consecutively that they stopped doing normal activities. The WHO surveyed 15,790 pupils, aged between 13 and 15, in 194 government and private schools in four areas: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and the northern emirates. The study found that 43 per cent of the pupils were involved in a physical fight in the past year, while 20 per cent were bullied and 15 per cent felt lonely.

The GSHS survey also indicated that 13 per cent of pupils had seriously considered suicide, and 9.8 per cent had made a plan about how they would do it. The MoH will consider similar mental health issues in its review. Dr Susan Bennett, a leading expert in children's mental health, said society should not underestimate the effect bullying, violence and stress had on pupils. During the past two years, Dr Bennett has been analysing the systems schools have in place to ensure they create a healthy environment.

"There is a strong relationship between health, mental health and safety," she said. "The schools have a responsibility for taking on these issues, not just from a moral perspective, but also to help the children achieve the best they can in an academic sense. "It is proven that the academic performance is dependent on children's health. It is all about providing a healthy environment. Something like bullying and violence will be picked up in a healthy environment."

MoH officials will also take into account physical aspects such as nutrition and diets. Obesity is of particular concern. A study published in Obesity Reviews in 2006 showed 21.5 per cent of school children in the Gulf region were overweight and 13.7 per cent were obese. Dr Hussein al Othman, an associate professor of sociology at Sharjah University, said he supported the MoH's efforts to evaluate and improve health in school children.

"First of all, it's a good thing that the ministry is conducting this survey. I have observed children who are overweight, and this is directly connected to their lifestyles. This isn't a medical condition, a social determinant. "The schools aren't doing enough for physical education. They do not do any physical activity at school." Dr Othman said he was worried that children lacked enthusiasm for improving their health and taking physical education in schools.

"They start classes, and they just stand around. No one right now seems to care enough about this problem. Exercise is not emphasised in Arab culture in general," he said. "Obesity and diseases like diabetes negatively affect a student's achievement. People eat and drink, but people rarely take part in physical activity. Children do not know about the benefits of walking - they are living a lifestyle that can be compared to an elderly person."

The British School in Abu Dhabi has taken steps to improve the mental health of its pupils. Earlier this year, it launched an anti-bullying campaign, which was run by the student council. Pupils helped to create anti-bullying messages, which were spread via drama, posters, talks and music. Ali Bushnaq, a father of three, said evaluating a pupil's mental health was just as important as studying their physical health and should be made a top priority by the ministry.

"It is great to hear they are doing this. It is very important to see exactly what the state of the youth's mental health is," he said. "It is very important to their success and happiness, so finding out the situation is a very good idea." Mr Bushnaq was encouraged by the news of the MoH survey. "It will be very interesting to see the results of this review. It is sometimes very hard being a child. I would like to see more social workers to sort out the problems in schools, but things can only be fixed when the problems are known."

The review in the northern emirates is expected to start in October and will be conducted for three months. The results will be published next year. * With additional reporting by Hugh Naylor