Rampant bullying in Qatar’s schools take a toll on students’ mental health.
“It’s either eat or get eaten, you’re either the bully or you get bullied,” says Hashim*, a 23 year-old Jordanian describing his preparatory school experience.
Hashim studied at an independent school in Qatar that taught primarily in Arabic. However, unlike most people, he does not remember his time at school fondly.
“I was a late bloomer, so I was short, skinny and had long hair. Everyone else was bigger than me. I tried to make friends but couldn’t for a long time. I got bullied a lot, and especially, in my school if you fought back you’d get sent to the hospital and the police would get involved.”
Hashim’s experience is not an isolated incident. Several students in Qatar suffer with bullying during their time at school, irrespective of their age. While most schools have a zero-tolerance bullying policy, students are often too scared to report cases to authorities, sometimes not even telling their parents, due to fear of retaliation.
A Microsoft study into bullying among 8-17-year-olds in Qatar shows 81% have experienced some kind of peer-to-peer abuse, either online or offline.
Another research from 2018 about violence among adolescents in Qatar schools revealed how almost half of the participants (49%) self-reported being involved in a physical fight in the previous 12 months.
“In the last few years, bullying has become very evident. It is common at schools and we see children suffering from this issue frequently,” said Dr. Manal Osman, Associate Consultant, Psychiatry (Child and Adolescent Mental Health) at Hamad Medical Centre.
“Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems,” Dr. Manal added.
Male participants were 1.4 times more likely to be involved in a fight than their female counterparts, according to the 2018 study. However, research also shows that males were subject to various forms of bullying than those experienced by females, where the former were subjected to verbal and physical bullying while the latter were subject to indirect bullying.
Cycle of bullying
While walking with her friend in eighth grade, now 21-year old Mariam Kamal was attacked at school.
“I don’t know what made these girls choose me but they were 6-7 girls. They were a bit bigger than me. They surrounded me by my locker once and they stood in a circle around me. They started pulling my hair and they started hitting me from everywhere – I didn’t know where it was coming from. I couldn’t even see who was doing it,” she said, recalling the harrowing incident.
Childhood bullying can cause lifelong psychological damage. Approximately 20% of people who have been bullied experience some kind of mental health problems at some point in life.
“In a way it still affects me to this day, especially with my personality,” said Hashim. “Looking back, I’m pretty sure I was depressed. I didn’t have an easy childhood. I didn’t have many friends so I spent most of my time at home.”
Studies suggest that students who are victims of bullying are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviour towards others, turning into bullies themselves and thus creating an ongoing cycle of bullying.
To Mariam, being bullied in the past was the reason she started bullying some classmates few years later. She believed this was a way she could take back power and agency that her bullies took from her.
“I know it was wrong and I wish I could apologise to every girl that I ever hurt. It was me lashing out because of what happened to me and I do regret it. I was young and it was all I knew how to do,” she told Doha News.
With the internet invading all parts of life, cyberbullying has become the focus of anti-bullying efforts.
The practice is defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices,” by the Cyberbullying Research Center in Florida, USA. Research has shown that 28% of 8-17 year-olds get bullied online in Qatar.
Eman Al-Mushiri, the head of successful anti-bullying initiative “Treasure Today the Future of Tomorrow”, says the internet has made it easier to abuse others.
“It’s no longer about punching the kid and shoving him in the locker room like it was when I was younger. Now it’s easier to just create a fake account and break someone down from a distance,” Al-Mushiri told Doha News.
Websites that allow anonymous questions and messages like Ask.fm, Sarahah, and now more popularly Curious Cat, have turned into hubs for cyberbullies. 19-year-old Mariam Al-Hael experienced cyberbullying when she was just 14 over Ask.fm.
This then continued with more hate messages on Curious Cat, where she would often Al-receive messages mocking her appearance.
“I’m a bit overweight, and I’ll never forget the day I received a question asking how I fit in my chair. Someone also once asked me to buy a bigger sized school uniform, because I looked like a ‘stuffed sausage’ in mine,” said Al-Hael.
The messages eventually got to Al-Hael. “I couldn’t bring myself to eat, recovering from my eating disorder has been a long process,” she said.
While deactivating her social media accounts helped a little, she believes that she still has a long way until she fully recovers. “I don’t think people realise the weight of their words. Or maybe they just don’t care about the damage they’re capable of inflicting on one person,” said Al-Hael.
Breaking the cycle
Al-Mushiri, the Qatari-American entrepreneur and mother of three, came to Qatar as a young teen and did not know a word of Arabic. This proved to be difficult in a government school and led to her being severely bullied as a child.
“Having grown up in America it was hard for me to battle eight years of the old style government Arabic education and deal with people who had very little knowledge when it came to the psychological well being of a child,” said Al-Mushiri.
For this reason, bullying was a topic that was really close to her heart.
Today, Al-Mushiri is chief of the anti-bullying initiative that started in 2016. Its main objective is to raise awareness about the issue, and then with the help of carefully planned out strategies and information from specialists, attempts to prevent bullying altogether.
“The amount of messages that I received and the amount of positive feedback blew my mind away,” said Al-Mushiri.
Identifying a victim
According psychiatrist Dr. Abeer Eisa, one of the main indicators for parents to pick on is ‘school refusal’, where children begin to reject attending schools on a regular basis.
“In the morning, the kid might start vomiting, feeling nauseous, or struggling with abdominal pain and they’ll refuse to go to school,” explained Dr. Eisa. Once the child is allowed to stay home, the symptoms quickly disappear, only to reappear the next morning.
Children could also develop other disorders like social anxiety, leading them to avoid social settings and communication with those around them due to low self-esteem and extreme overthinking. However, their social life may not be the only thing taking a hit, with academic performance also at risk of being impacted.
The signs can also be detected during bedtime with increased nightmares and insomnia.
How to help a victim of bullying
Help for those dealing with bullying depends on the child’s age and the negative psychological effects that arise with the suffering. If they’re in primary and middle school, it’s recommended they go through psychotherapy sessions designed to improve their confidence and social skills.
According to Dr. Eisa, there’s also the option of family counselling that involves the parents. This teaches the carers how to deal with their child.
Psychiatrists can also collaborate with school counsellors to help the student navigate the bullying in the right manner.
“My advice to the teachers and parents is to open their eyes,” Al-Mushiri said.
“Create support groups, show kids that it’s okay to talk about getting bullied,” she added, noting that confidentiality and mindfulness is essential.
“It’s already hard for the kids to come forward, you can hurt the situation by reacting quickly,” she added.
With reporting and writing by Hazar Kilani.