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HK Magazine Archive

Hong Kong's Schools Are Pressure Cookers. Can They Handle It? Not Really

Two major NGOs urge systemic reform now.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2016, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:00pm

Are Hong Kong’s school systems—known for a notoriously tough academic grind, rote learning through long hours and exam after exam—fully equipped with the proper mechanisms to handle student stress?

Wong Nam-fai, the Education Officer of the Mental Health Association of Hong Kong, says that Hong Kong’s education system needs reform. Often times, teachers have to spend so much time on beefing up students’ academic results that they cannot afford the time to talk to them one-on-one. “Positive thinking and emotional management should be included in the general education so as to prepare them for stress,” he says.

The Caritas Youth and Community Service just last week launched a WhatsApp hotline to help youth in despair. Lee Tai-ying, a social work supervisor at the organization, says it is an experimental guidance tool. “Many teenagers who are in need of counseling are unready for our service, so we’ve come up with a more accessible way to get in touch with them. Teenagers can come to us at flexible times.”

Read More: How Stressed Out is Hong Kong?

While she is happy to observe that more young people have come to counseling, she points out that many of them experience trouble dealing with academic stress.

Both Wong and Lee agree that care from parents play an enormous part in the prevention of student suicide. Unfortunately, parents often don’t seem to have enough time to communicate with their children. While parents can be bound to long working hours, children themselves are often obligated to tutorials and extra-curricular activities; their schoolwork is already a handful.

Read More: Hong Kong's Mentally Ill Suffocated by Stigma and Red Tape

Back in 2011, the Education Bureau (EDB) published an eBook on student suicide for schools, providing teachers with guidelines for “early detection, intervention and postvention.”  In it contains what's called a “No-Suicide Contract,” in which students take a pledge not to “harm themselves or commit suicide” for a specific period of time. The contract was re-posted on Facebook today and garnered some 1,300 angry faces from this morning to the publication time of this article.

“Our social workers sometimes draw up a contract with teenagers in whom they recognize signs of self-abuse,” says Wong.

“Reprimand is never the way.” —Wong Nam-fai, Mental Health Association

So the salient question is: What happens if a student violates the contract? “Reprimand is never the way. We tend to find out why they harm themselves and let them know that we’re worried about them,” says Wong.

Lee says that the purpose of the contract is “actually a meeting of the minds to come up with a set of goals both parties agree on, which means it should be tailor made for each student to suit their needs, instead of a single template for everyone.”

In response to the media’s inquiries, the EDB says that their No-Suicide Contract is backed up by trained counselors in guiding students through the constructive discussion of possible solutions, as well as using it for risk assessment. “Other countries like the U.S. and Taiwan are also using this as a counseling tool,” the EDB said today in a statement.