In an effort to tackle rising incidences of mental illness among Qatar’s young residents, local health officials said they have begun training teachers to identify possible behavioral issues among students.
Currently, when pupils act out, many schools primarily apply punitive measures – such as detention – to meet the standards set in the Supreme Education Council’s behavioral code, said Dr. Suhaila Ghuloum, a senior psychiatry consultant at Hamad Medical Corp.
While that approach is not unique to Qatar, teachers here are nevertheless missing an opportunity to understand why a student is refusing to follow directions or misbehaving in other ways, Ghuloum added.
Speaking to Doha News on the sidelines of the second World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) in Qatar, she said there is a lack of “psychological mindedness” in schools in this country and abroad.
“There isn’t a recognition of how to address a child who misbehaves in the classroom. It is immediately how to punish a child who is misbehaving,” Ghuloum said.
“Detention might be a very viable step. It is needed sometimes. But there are other issues you should look at. Why did that student behave in that way? If you don’t look into it deeper, you are going to miss most of the cases – if not all – of, for example, depression.”
Ghuloum is leading a clinical team that, as part of a wider initiative, is training secondary school teachers and counselors to recognize and treat behavioral issues in Qatar.
Last year, officials started the program in Qatar’s government-run independent schools. The plan is to roll it out to private schools later this year.
Speaking to Doha News, Ghuloum emphasized that not every child who is behaving differently from his or her peers has a mental illness, and that researchers did not want teachers referring a flood of students to health professionals or making them feel as though they had a disorder.
“Not every child who is lonely has depression … a child who is lonely may have self-esteem issues. A child who is naughty may need attention because he is deprived of attention,” she said.
She added that addressing and treating behavioral problems in adolescents and teenagers could help stop more serious mental health issues from developing.
“This is prevention,” she said.
Mental health in Qatar
There’s no concrete data on the prevalence of mental illness among children in Qatar.
However, other research has previously estimated that one-quarter of teenagers in Qatar suffer from depression.
Dr. Veena Luthra, a consultant psychiatrist at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi, said in 2013 that one reason for the high rates of youth mental illness in the Gulf may be the “nanny problem” and newfound wealth in the region:
“A lot of kids here are raised by nannies and the nanny is the primary caregiver,” she was quoted as saying. “I don’t know how much emotional support they’re getting … it’s probably more like putting the child in front of the TV and giving them video games.”
Meanwhile, health officials here have previously estimated that one-fifth of the country’s population is affected by mental illness at any given point in time.
That figure was cited in Qatar’s National Mental Health Strategy, a five-year plan released in late 2013.
Its goals include raising awareness to reduce the stigma around mental illness, making measurable improvements in patient care and fulfilling previously announced promises to improve doctor training and integrate mental health care into primary health centers.
Ghuloum said that while the goals of her program align with Qatar’s mental health strategy, it is a standalone initiative.
Along with rolling out the training program to more schools in Qatar, Ghuloum said her team plans to conduct follow-up assessments to see how much of the training is retained by local educators, and to see if the program results in improved mental health among local students.