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Put an end to stereotypes for students’ sake

We can all help towards ensuring there are zero suicides in the Hong Kong school system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 January, 2017, 11:35pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 January, 2017, 11:48pm

I attended the Legislative Council panel on preventing student suicides on Saturday. The meeting, which started at 9am and ended at 3pm, was highly charged.

In a report to the meeting we emphasised the complexity of the suicide situation and said academic pressure was not the direct cause. By saying this, we had no intention whatsoever of downplaying the impact the education system has on our young people. The misinterpretation was unfortunate and much valuable time was wasted.

To only blame the school system is an oversimplification which is not constructive for suicide prevention because we may miss many opportunities to intervene. Furthermore, to do so may prove counterproductive when trying to save students who perceive suicide as an acceptable way of dealing with their difficulties, many of which may not be related to their studies.

I know there are many stereotypes about suicide in our society. For example, when a woman commits suicide, she must have emotional problems or family disputes, an elderly person must be in pain and a youngster under academic pressure.

Those working in the media partly contribute to this stereotyping. They are influenced by such ideas when reporting suicides without carrying out adequate investigations.

Media reports that continue to reinforce stereotypes are then often quoted by others in support of their stereotypical arguments. Such a vicious cycle only further rationalises suicidal behaviour and makes people feel that suicide is normal when facing dilemmas and difficulties.

Then how can we put a stop to stereotyping? In news reports we should avoid simplification, labelling and the rationalisation of suicidal behaviour. Educators should discuss suicide with students and advise them on how to deal with their plight in the right way. Parents should let their children feel loved and cared for in both words and deeds, so youngsters appreciate the meaning of life and learn to seek help. Opinion leaders, including lawmakers, should put a stop to stereotypes by not politicising matters.

The 37 members of the Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides, of which I am chairman, shared the same objective with many participants at the panel meeting and we want to help our youngsters.

We should all look for evidence-based measures to make our work more effective and to ensure the school system helps those in need. Ending stereotyping and empowering our youngsters and their families are a step in the right direction towards zero suicides in our school system.

We can all contribute to the effort. Let us take ownership and leadership in our own way to make the difference. We appreciate stakeholders, including the media, teachers, parents and others, have been working hard to help students and we have witnessed the change. Hopefully all these efforts can be sustained and multiplied.

Paul Yip is director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong