Expat’s suicide spurs questions about mental healthcare in Qatar
Friends and family members of an American woman who committed suicide in Qatar last week are expressing shock and grief over her death.
They are also urging residents to speak more openly about mental health, in hopes of preventing similar tragedies from happening in the future.
The woman, who is not being identified for privacy reasons, apparently took her own life in late February.
The US Embassy has refused to confirm her death and referred all questions to Qatari authorities.
Speaking to Doha News, one close friend said she knew the woman “had her demons” in the past, and that she had been experiencing “low points.”
However, several friends also said that they had “zero idea” that the woman had been feeling suicidal, and that “nobody saw it coming.”
One close colleague who described the woman as “vivacious and full of life” said she believes the tragedy could have been prevented:
“(Professional) intervention would absolutely have helped. Without a doubt. But in this case most of us who could have helped had no idea of the need,” she added.
She also reflected on the expat experience, saying: “I guess we all need to know that being away from home often makes us very vulnerable. I wish I had spoken about it with my cherished friend.”
The woman’s sudden death has caused much soul-searching among those who knew her.
One former resident and friend of the deceased blogged this week about his own struggles to hide his depression while living in Doha.
Alexander Studholme, who has bipolar disorder, writes:
“I would only go out when feeling upbeat, chipper, or more frequently during manic spells. This gave a completely distorted impression of my well being.”
Like Studholme, many people try to hide the true extent of their illness, regardless of where they live.
But in Qatar, professionals have acknowledged that there is a persistent social stigma that prevents people from talking about their mental health.
Last summer, the Ministry of Public Health teamed up with a UK-based organization to tackle this issue, launching a public awareness campaign in schools and across the country.
Lack of information
However, people are often unaware of where to go to seek help, according to Studholme.
“There needs to be more freely available information about what mental health treatment is available and a willingness to expand and improve the options,” he said in his blog post.
Other friends of the deceased agreed, saying they too would be confused about where to go for help without fear of judgment or reprisal.
Additionally, when one does finally see a doctor, proper assistance is not always forthcoming.
Studholme for example said that when he finally met with a psychiatrist, the doctor “didn’t inspire confidence.”
He added that beyond prescribing him medication, there appeared to be no more help on offer in Qatar for his illness.
“Anyone with experience in mental health treatment will know that medication isn’t enough and that it should be prescribed in tandem with therapy — whether cognitive behavioral therapy or talking — and should be closely monitored.”
This is extraordinarily difficult to do in Qatar and wasn’t even vaguely suggested by the consultant.”
He added that it was suggested that if he didn’t improve, he would need to be admitted to Qatar’s psychiatric hospital.
Afraid of this outcome, he didn’t return to see the consultant to get his next prescription, he said.
While talking about depression in Qatar is difficult, discussing suicide can be even more taboo.
There are no official figures on how many people have killed themselves in recent years.
But anecdotal reports suggest the rate is going up, particularly among the expat community.
This is thought to be partly due to concerns about layoffs and rising debts.
Qatari law also complicates matter, as it is illegal to attempt to commit suicide under the penal code. A person convicted of this can face up to six years in prison and a fine of QR3,000.
Friends of the female expat who died recently suggested that easy access to support, such as a suicide phone hotline, might have helped her.
“This is the third or fourth (suicide) case I have heard of and I do wonder if any of the young people involved would have accessed a suicide hotline if it had been available,” one friend said. “The advantage of that sort of resource is its anonymity and immediacy I guess.”
Qatar has been working to improve its mental health services in recent years, acknowledging that depression is a prevalent problem in the community.
Last year, Qatar’s Emir signed off on a new law that for the first time gave residents with mental health conditions specific rights regarding their treatment.
Authorities have also invested significant funds in new treatment centers, opening several mental health centers in Qatar last year.
However, Studholme points out that these appear to be only for women and children.
Expat community support
Acknowledging the restricted services on offer, he suggested that expat communities come together to support their own.
This approach has recently been employed by leaders of Qatar’s Indian community, following an apparent spate of debt-related suicides.
Indian expats are now encouraged to look for signs of mental distress among their friends and colleagues, as well as offer support to those who are going through a rough time.
Similarly, following the suicide of a college student in 2015, health and wellness counselors across Education City implored students to seek help in times of need.
Finally, Studholme urged expat communities to learn a lesson from the death of his friend by not letting things fester:
“Without making things better, the same problems will remain. In the best-case scenario, people like me will leave the country after a period of extreme suffering and discontent. We know what the worst case scenario is.”
If you or someone you know is in need of psychiatric care in Doha, here is a guide to accessing Hamad Medical Corp.’s Mental Health services.
For those who need urgent care, HMC offered this advice in a statement to Doha News:
“Anyone who experiences severe depression, and who may be feeling suicidal should go to the emergency department where we have qualified psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals who can provide diagnosis and care.
Individuals experiencing such feelings need to be reassured that they will be appropriately assessed, their issues sensitively addressed and a treatment plan will be shared with them following a diagnosis.”
HMC also advises anyone suffering severe depression to contact someone they trust and ask them to stay with them until they seek professional help.