Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 5 December 2020

UAE legal reforms: Suicide law changes throw a lifeline to the most vulnerable

Families back landmark move to officially decriminalise suicide and attempted suicide

Gail Thompson said decriminalising suicide will encourage desperate people to ask for support.  Duncan Chard for the National 
Gail Thompson said decriminalising suicide will encourage desperate people to ask for support.  Duncan Chard for the National 

Related: UAE sets out legal overhaul of personal and family law

Sweeping changes to the UAE's personal law has placed suicide and help from support groups back in the spotlight.

Although those who attempted suicide, but survived, were rarely prosecuted, previous laws exposed them to potential prosecution by the courts.

The legal grey area left some of the most desperate and vulnerable in the community confused about how or if they could ask for help.

Clarity has now been offered under landmark legal changes to officially decriminalise suicide and attempted suicide, a practice unofficially in place for some time.

British resident Gail Thompson, whose long-term partner took his own life in Dubai in 2019, said the ruling would encourage those who have lost all hope to ask for help.

There are so many people trying to help family and friends who do not have the support they need. Hopefully that will now change

Gail Thompson, whose long-term partner took his own life in Dubai

“The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming when you don’t know where to turn because you are afraid of the repercussions,” she said.

“At the time, misinformation or a lack of it made it very difficult for us.

“With this new legislation people can reach out for the support they so desperately need, without the fear of breaking the law being added to their load.

“There are so many people trying to help family and friends who do not have the support they need. Hopefully that will now change.

"When someone close takes their life, they take a part of your life too."

While police and courts now ensure vulnerable people receive mental-health support, anyone found assisting an individual with an attempted suicide will face an unspecified jail sentence.

Suicide prevention is one of the foundations of the global Movember movement, an initiative to encourage discussion about men’s health throughout the month of November.

In Australia, where the charitable foundation originated 17 years ago, men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women.

It is a common trend, with men neglecting psychological issues in greater numbers than women, according to Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counselling psychologist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.

“We are seeing an increase in male patients at the centre, mainly with issues relating to Covid-19,” she said.

“Men often bear the primary financial responsibility in Dubai.

“During times of global economic uncertainty they can feel highly stressed about their ability to provide for their families, maintain their homes, children’s education and job stability.

“Compared to women, it is far less likely for men to be open and communicate with their friends and social support group about their struggles.”

Stigma around suicide is common across the world, particularly in Indian and Pakistani communities - two of the largest diasporas in the UAE.

About 3.4 million Indians are estimated to live in the Emirates, about 27 per cent of the population.

“Attitudes towards suicide varies among different communities, some may see it as a sign of weakness, or that there are other factors at play which cause someone to take extremes steps like suicide,” said Ayesha Kapur, a psychotherapist at the Staff Health Unit for the Medecines Sans Frontieres (MSF) charity in India.

“This period of self-isolation has not created new issues for people, rather people are now confronting existing issues which they had been avoiding.”

Experts said more time spent at home or in isolation forced some difficult questions about purpose and life goals.

A mental health helpline established during the pandemic by the UAE National Programme for Happiness and Wellbeing received 740 calls in just four months from May.

In Ras Al Khaimah, a suicide prevention taskforce was established by the social workers at the Indian Relief Committee to support the community after the suicide of a popular Indian national in 2018.

Similar initiatives offering support groups for men have arisen in recent months, prompted by the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Pakistanis make up the second-largest community of expatriates with about 1.5 million people living and working in the country.

They face similar challenges with effective mental health support and cultural acceptance of the issues they face, particularly among men.

Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counselling psychologist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, said men neglected psychological issues more than women. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counselling psychologist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, said men neglected psychological issues more than women. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Naveed Sultan, a clinical psychologist, is working at the MSF's Timergara project, an emergency response in Pakistan to the impact of Covid-19.

He said attitudes towards mental health in some Pakistani communities are often shrouded in misconception.

“One misunderstanding is the attachment of stigma or attribution of supernatural causes to mental health problems,” he said.

“That makes it difficult to speak out and seek professional care.”

In Pakistan, suicides are estimated to represent some 0.9 per cent of all deaths.

Mr Sultan said treatment was often restricted to unlicensed, traditional practitioners such as spiritualists and faith healers, whereas medical practitioners or psychiatrists were approached less often.

“People hide their suicidal ideations as is religiously prohibited, therefore leading to under reporting,” he said.

“Although people with suicidal tendencies do contact helplines, they are hesitating to approach mental health services in person due to these cultural and social stigmas.”

Updated: November 8, 2020 06:23 PM

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