To prevent student suicides, all of Hong Kong has to fight the battle – each and every day
Paul Yip says while there is no quick fix to the problem, which has many causes, it is heartening that many in the city already recognise the need to show care and are doing their part to support our young
The government has set up a committee to investigate the causes of recent student suicides. I have been asked to chair it and a final report will be made available in six months. Members of the committee are drawn from a wide range of sectors and professions and have the full support of various government departments, including the labour and welfare, food and health, and home affairs bureaus. We are also pleased that the president of the student union at the University of Hong Kong has joined the committee, too.
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When it comes to suicides, one is too many. Our core mission is very clear: to prevent student suicides. The government is fully committed to this effort. Nonetheless, the causes of suicide are always complex. Thus, I hope the community understands that there is no quick fix and one size doesn’t fit all.
It is easy to blame pressure arising from our exam-orientated education system. It is well known that young people in Western countries face less academic pressure; however, their suicide rate is higher than that of Hong Kong youth. There is a high prevalence of substance abuse and drinking among young people in the West. Any failure to appreciate the complexities of the problem would mislead intervention efforts and cause us to miss the window of opportunity for saving lives.
Our first task is to thoroughly investigate the causes of suicide. Individual and family character traits, relationships, mental well-being, peer and school experiences, support for children with special needs, and so on, are all of concern. All have been shown to be related to suicide risk.
Sometimes, parents’ unrealistic expectations of their children can be a major source of stress to schoolchildren. For some, there is the additional challenge of dealing with parents who are often not there. Some parents are not easily contactable due to their heavy workload and/or long working hours. This is especially true of single parents.
A good education is regarded as very important, so parents tend to stress academic achievement over the mental well-being of their children. At home, too, many have to cope with tiny living spaces, which increases mental stress.
In schools, the demanding teaching and administrative duties of staff leave them no time to really understand students. According to the latest “Child Fatality Review” by the Social Welfare Department, the majority of students who took their own lives in 2010 and 2011 had expressed their suicidal thoughts in one way or another before the actual act. Yet, somehow, we were not able to pick up their distress signals and provide timely intervention.
The good news is that the entire community has shown itself to be highly supportive of suicide prevention efforts. Some schools have already implemented measures to raise awareness and improve early identification skills. The Education Bureau and non-governmental organisations are offering consultation and support to schools in need.
Suicide reporting in the media has also improved. Many reports now include information about a helpline, and the reports are more accurate. Even internet and social media users have become more careful in sharing suicide news, as they realise it can lead to a copycat effect on the vulnerable.
Wael Ghonim, a social media activist who became one of the initiators of the revolution that toppled the Egyptian government, has conceded that, while the use of social media is instrumental to social movements, it can also cause damage by polarising society.
Social media is meant to connect people. However, the connection can be shallow and it can be difficult to establish meaningful rapport. Some of our young people tend to get lost in the virtual world. The Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong has been exploring ways to engage vulnerable youth using social media.
The new committee will do its best to identify causes and shortcomings and provide workable solutions to mitigate the problem. At the same time, we need continued support from all stakeholders in the community. Comments and suggestions would be appreciated and welcome. Suicide prevention is a war to be won, and battles are fought daily. We can all do our part to save young lives – don’t spare any effort in helping our children.
We are very grateful to see so many people willing to contribute in different ways. It is another revival of the “Lion Rock spirit”, to help ourselves and help others. It does need a village to raise a child in Hong Kong.
Our young people need space and opportunities. I am sure they will be able to surprise us with their achievements. Let’s aim to move towards zero-suicide campuses.
Paul Yip is director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong