Uptick in suicide deaths in Kuwait points to social stigma around mental illness 

6 min read

Kuwait is witnessing a rise in suicides, with young people, foreign workers and those from the Bidoon community the groups most likely to end their lives. Between January and November 2021, 120 suicides were recorded: an average of 12 cases per month. This is a highly concerning statistic, say mental health specialists who spoke to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication.

Some put the rising suicides among Kuwaiti youth down to the crises in mental health afflicting this age group, most of whom don't receive any kind of psychological treatment. One Kuwaiti teenager killed herself after she was bullied for her "Asiatic" features, inherited from her mother.

In addition to this, a number of Kuwait's Bidoon community committed suicide last year. The suicides have shaken Kuwaiti society and sparked increasing demands that the cases be looked into in order to curb the situation.

"Kuwait is witnessing a rise in suicides, with young people, immigrants and those from the Bidoon community the groups most likely to end their lives"

The Jaber Bridge – the Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah Causeway which links the two banks of the Gulf of Kuwait – has become a symbol of suicide due to the number of those who have attempted to throw themselves off it and the police have now started running regular security patrols to try to prevent this from happening.

Amid huge deprivation, Bidoon see suicides rise 

A Bidoon activist (who preferred to remain anonymous), says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed: "There have been 13 suicides in our community, one of them a 12-year-old child. His suicide led to a wave of condemnation from human rights organisations, due to the poor economic and social conditions the Bidoon suffer because of the suffocating restrictions placed on them by the Central Agency For Remedying Illegal Residents' Status.

"These include forbidding the issuance of official documentation or ID cards, as well as preventing access to employment and education," the activist explains, adding that "suicide attempts are on the rise. Security services recently arrested a young man who tried to set himself alight and broadcast it live online, in protest at his living conditions and his inability to find a job, in the Taima' neighbourhood, in Al Jahra in north Kuwait."

A view of the Sheikh Jaber causeway in Kuwait City, which has gained notoriety over the recent period due to the number of people who have attempted to throw themselves off it [Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP via Getty]

Attempting suicide is punishable under Kuwaiti law, as is assisting someone to commit suicide. According to article 158 of the Kuwaiti criminal code: "Anyone who incites, assists or agrees with a person about their suicide, who then commits suicide, will be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years and with a fine of no more than 3,000 rupees (the old Kuwaiti currency) or with one of these two punishments."

Identifying the push factors

The issue is not restricted to the Bidoon; Kuwaiti citizens and migrant workers have also been represented in the heightened suicide statistics. In January, a young man and woman, both Kuwaiti citizens, killed themselves in two separate incidents. The man hanged himself in the Al Na'eem suburb of Al Jahra and the woman shot herself with an old hunting rifle in her car in Kuwait City. The two had suffered "social and psychological pressures" according to reports on the incidents in local papers.

Kuwaiti security services also recovered the bodies of foreign workers residing in Kuwait who killed themselves, due, it is believed, to the harsh living and economic conditions which worsened for many during the full lockdown, but also the partial lockdown which the government enforced.  

"Suicide cases are not a new phenomenon in Kuwait – they are a symptom of modern societies in which many feel alienated. Additionally, the culture here rejects the idea of psychiatric treatment or therapy, as mental health issues are heavily stigmatised"

In light of the situation, Ali Al-Baghli, Head of the Complaints and Grievances Committee at the National Office for Human Rights in Kuwait, said that the office was working on "a systematic study which aims to find out what is pushing people towards suicide. They also seek to identify the warning signs that someone might be suicidal, especially within the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Our main goal is to prepare studies and training tools as well as raise awareness of these issues within a framework of promoting a culture of human rights". Al-Baghli explained that the office was working in coordination with several official channels like the ministries of Interior, Justice, Health, and Social Affairs, as well as academic and research bodies like Kuwait University, the Social Development Office, and the For Remedying Illegal Residents' Status.

Social stigma major barrier to those seeking help

Khalil Khaled, a sociology researcher at Kuwait University, says: "Suicide cases are not a new phenomenon in Kuwait – they are a symptom of modern societies in which many feel alienated. Additionally, the culture here rejects the idea of psychiatric treatment or therapy, as mental health issues are heavily stigmatised. Because of this, those who do want to seek treatment often can't afford the high costs of going to private doctors' surgeries – especially as most of these people are either immigrants or from the Bidoon community who are on very low incomes."

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Khaled asserts that "suicide has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, especially if we look at recent statistics showing that there were 60 percent more suicides in Kuwait in 2021 than 2020 – this figure should raise many questions and spur serious research into the reasons for this rise."

Depression, drug abuse and deportation

Dr Sulaiman Alkhadhari, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Kuwait University, believes that the increased incidence of suicide is due to "a rise in severe depression as well as increasing abuse of illegal narcotic substances". He adds that "those who attempt suicide require urgent psychological treatment because research indicates that those who attempt suicide will try again."

Activists and lawyers have also slammed some members of the Kuwaiti National Assembly for encouraging the deportation of immigrants with mental health problems. MP Badr al-Hamidi was shocked when Kuwaiti psychiatrists rounded on him for demanding the enactment of a law that would promote the deportation of any immigrant diagnosed with a mental health condition, emphasising that he thought they should be treated like those with contagious diseases, who are deported from the country.

Mental health professionals assert that the law to deport immigrants diagnosed with mental health problems will lead to a reluctance to seek psychological treatment, which will, in turn, exacerbate the problems which lead to suicide.   

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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