Suicides in Hong Kong

Preventing student suicide is not just about reforming Hong Kong’s education system

Paul Yip says case studies reveal that prevention requires efforts from all stakeholders to address every related factor, including family relationships and mental health care

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 12:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 8:00pm

The Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides presented its investigation report to the government this month. With the aim of preventing student suicides, it has adopted a public health approach to propose multilayered intervention schemes, to help vulnerable pupils in schools.

The committee was set up in response to a spate of suicides among schoolchildren in March and April this year. The 21 committee members and 37 members of the five working groups – on school, family, mental health, tertiary students and social media – worked tirelessly over the past six months. The committee reviewed information from 71 cases in the past two years, based on Coroner’s Court reports, police investigations, school reports and family interviews.

Some 74 per cent of students who committed suicide had suffered from poor family relationships

We have identified multiple factors that contribute to students taking their lives and nearly all suffered more than one single cause, not to mention the knowledge and service gaps on suicide prevention.

The report’s recommendations aim to remove barriers and strengthen the existing systems to tackle student suicides more comprehensively. Specifically, schools need support to free up time and space to care for their students; families and youth require knowledge on mental health needs, ways to seek help and early detection and intervention; gaps in the mental health service system for schools also need to be filled. All in all, we need to improve our systems (including school, health care, welfare and family) to promote a nurturing environment for our children.

Multi-pronged approach needed to tackle student suicides

Some in the community mistakenly believe the report tried to say there is no relationship between suicide and the school system. What the report has established, based on the investigation of cases, is that there is no direct causal link between the two, but certainly all these causes (including family, mental health and adjustment problems) are related and need to be dealt with.

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There is a strong feeling in the community about the need to overhaul the school system. Certainly, a more caring and supportive system would enhance mental health. A less exam-orientated curriculum and more diverse education pathways would definitely help develop children’s well-being.

A less exam-orientated curriculum ... would definitely help develop children’s well-being

Nevertheless, the family aspect is also of great importance; some 74 per cent of students who committed suicide had suffered from poor family relationships, and in 97 per cent of cases, there was more than a single cause. Hence, if we fail to appreciate the complexity of the causes of suicide, by just singling out the education system, we will miss many opportunities for intervention. Suicide is not an issue confined to education; prevention requires effort from all stakeholders in the community.

Placing students at the centre of pooled efforts, especially from the government, schools, families and the media, is essential. The goal is to create a tightly knit support network where a sense of connectedness permeates throughout the community to strengthen each member’s resilience to setbacks in life, and to create a caring culture with heightened awareness and acceptance.

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The overall scope and complexity of the issue, and the pressing time frame for the committee, have been a big challenge. Yet, the strong desire to make changes in the community and to help our students provided us with hope to rise to the challenge. There are no easy solutions to complex problems. However, we strongly believe that seemingly small measures can yield great resilience and strength when implemented together.

If we fail to appreciate the complexity of the causes of suicide, by just singling out the education system, we will miss many opportunities for intervention

The report is not a final study of suicide but hopefully a new beginning for the community to be more informed about how we can work more effectively to prevent suicide in schools.

A monitoring system is needed to ascertain the effectiveness of various measures, while continuous improvements in our school system are indispensable for strengthening suicide prevention efforts.

During the course of the study, the support of the Coroner’s Court, the police, other government bureaus and departments, the University Grants Committee, and interest groups and organisations have provided valuable information to ensure the proposed preventive measures are targeted and evidence-based. Traditional and social media have also responded promptly, following our appeal on responsible reporting.

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We are confident that, with ownership of the problem, leadership and perseverance, we can enhance our capacity to prevent suicide tragedies among our precious youth. Let’s hope that with the efforts of different stakeholders in the community, a healthy and caring environment can be cultivated that will help our students live their life to the fullest. To achieve this, we must understand that suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility.

Paul Yip is chairman of the committee on preventing student suicide and a director of the centre for suicide research and prevention at the University of Hong Kong