Every young life lost to despair is a cry for us to open our hearts
Alice Wu says the recent suicides in Hong Kong remind us that, individually and as a society, we all have a role to play to reduce the stigma of mental afflictions such as depression, and ease study-related stress
As a community, we felt a surge of emotions after learning of the string of deaths from despair. It’s overwhelming. And each additional unnecessary death punches us hard in the stomach and tugs at our hearts.
READ MORE: Team of psychologists to help depressed Hong Kong pupils after four suicides in five days
We are grieving as a community, and we’re shocked and angry. When it is young people who choose to end it all, it hits us that much harder. Youths have so much ahead of them. Surely, someone could have done something to prevent the tragedies. Many have lashed out at inadequate counselling and suicide prevention in schools, at the government for not doing enough, at our education system that makes students’ lives unbearable.
We do need more professionals, and more government-led and publicly funded initiatives and programmes. The professionals have the expertise; government has the resources. But the question – perhaps the hardest one to face – is whether there is something that each of us can do, in our own lives.
READ MORE: Student suicides in Hong Kong signal distressing lack of mental health support for our youth
Experts tell us that “suicide is the extreme outcome of a complex interplay of risk factors”, but that must not be taken to mean it’s beyond us to do anything. Some have recognised suicide’s phenomenon of “contagion” – a highly-charged emotional atmosphere that triggers grief, identification and imitation – but that shouldn’t be an excuse to reinforce the social stigma of mental illness or weakness.
Perhaps the worst thing is to allow ourselves to become numb to it or brush it off as “society’s fault”. It may well be society’s fault – how it has twisted the value of human beings – our “worth” is measured by our occupation, how much we earn, our assets, the school we attended, whether we rent or own, and if we own, our address. Students are constantly measured by their earning potential – which school they go to, what they study and how well they do in exams all determine whether they will be deemed “worthy”. As members of society, how much have we perpetuated that sort of measurement of human worth?
The issue of the stigma of mental illness has resulted in some news articles. Yet, attempts to address the problem and raise public awareness are often swept under the carpet when the news stories fade from view. People go back to making fun of others who are unwell, and tearing people down by labelling them “crazy”. How much have we learned about depression, anxiety and despair? The finality of suicide behoves us to see and understand how much and how long people suffered before that one moment of irreversible impulsiveness. Depression, anxiety and other mental afflictions are more common than we think. We are all prone to moments of vulnerability. We must give dignity and clarity to discussions of depression and mental illnesses.
We can all help make our society more compassionate. We can take the sting from the stigma of mental illness by holding our tongue and refraining from calling someone “crazy” or “psycho”. We can educate ourselves by learning about depression.
Media outlets can adhere to ethical guidelines on suicide reporting to minimise the impact of contagion. The Samaritans run an excellent youth peer-training programme so young people can learn how to spot, support and prevent suicides among their social groups. But none of this will help unless we hold our news media to a higher standard, and unless we stop seeing volunteerism and extracurricular activities as obstacles holding our students back from excelling academically. After all, we are hurting because we believe life is precious and worth living, even when it’s tough.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA