When Louis Smith, a 15-year-old pupil at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, took his own life in December, his death served as a reminder that teenage suicide is a terrible statistic of modern life. Since Louis's death, five teen suicides and two attempted suicides have been reported in the UAE. A study conducted in Dubai last year showed that nearly one in five schoolchildren aged 14 to 18 showed elevated signs of depression. According to the World Health Organisation, suicide is the second leading cause of death globally for young people aged between 10 and 24.
The psychological issues that teenagers wrestle with, and especially boys, often don’t get talked about until it’s too late to do anything about them. There are various reasons for this, from the shyness and predisposition towards introversion that many teenage boys struggle with, to an understandable concern about breaking a seemingly unbreakable taboo and discussing depression and death.
There is also no one-size-fits-all solution for the many challenges teenagers face. The best hope any parent has is to be empathetic and to listen. The teenage years are a time of intense change – not only physically but mentally – and often presage a period of conflict and disagreement between parents and children. As illogical as it may seem, this is also a time when your children need you most, even as they are pushing you away. As Louis’s father, Ross Barfoot, pointed out to this newspaper: “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.”
Schools also have a role to play by monitoring any significant mood shifts in the students under their care. Even more important is a space away from school or home for children to explore their emotions free from the burdens of expectation, such as a telephone hotline or even a drop-in facility. As Lisa Barfoot-Smith, Louis’s mother, said: “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.”
Nothing will bring back Louis nor ease the pain his family and friends continue to feel, but his name now lends itself to Louis Smith Foundation, where messages of advice and support are posted and the issues of depression and suicide are openly discussed.
If this can raise awareness of the issues teenagers struggle with, then his death will not have been in vain.