The loss of life to suicide is an issue that leads to heated discussion, usually in the wake of media reports about the tragic deaths. So it is heartening to see a programme making news for successfully reducing the number of suicides. Suicide prevention experts want to extend to Tuen Mun - the district that has Hong Kong's highest suicide rate - a scheme that has helped Cheung Chau overcome the stigma of being a popular destination for the suicidal. Whether the strategy developed in the small, outlying island will work in an urbanised area with a population of 500,000 remains to be seen. But any attempt to stop people taking their own lives is worth trying. An unflattering fact about Hong Kong is that many people live highly stressful lives that makes them prone to depression when things go wrong. Such was the case when the economy was afflicted by a recession between 1998 and 2003. The period saw our suicide rate surge to its peak in 2003 of 18.3 per 100,000, when it was 28 per cent higher than the world average. An alarming trend is that suicide has become the leading cause of death in the 15 to 24 age group. Fortunately, as the economy recovered, the figure has come down. But the fall could also be attributed to improved efforts to prevent suicides. The Cheung Chau programme was aimed at preventing visitors from killing themselves by burning charcoal in the island's holiday homes. This followed the shocking deaths of three teenagers using that method at the Bella Vista Villa in 2002. Blanket media coverage of the case dealt a big blow to the local tourism industry. It also caused a great deal of anxiety among local residents. The community-based suicide prevention programme has since reduced the number of visitor suicides to zero so far this year. What has done the trick is nothing magical. Holiday home operators simply keep a close watch on visitors, talking to those that look depressed, inquiring about what they are carrying and trying to cheer them up. Locals are educated about the importance of paying attention to their own mental health and offering a helping hand to forlorn visitors. The effectiveness of these simple steps shows that reducing unnecessary deaths is not such a difficult undertaking. Timely intervention is the key. A warm greeting to a person at the brink could mean the difference between life and death. What it takes is for everyone to be on the lookout for depressed souls and show compassion to those who feel they have no one to turn to. The social setting of Tuen Mun is different, and police officers and volunteers have been trained to identify the suicidal from among crowds. That is certainly a more difficult task than spotting visitors in a close-knit community in which most people know one another. But Hong Kong's social environment is such that we need as many pairs of those discerning eyes as possible to prevent people from taking their own lives.