Protesters rest in front of buildings in Central district. Four deaths amid protests against the extradition bill are pointing to an alarming trend. It’s time to join hands to restore calm and hope to Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters
by Jenny Huen and Paul Yip
by Jenny Huen and Paul Yip

We need to bring hope back into the lives of young Hongkongers

  • Hopelessness has been found to be a major risk factor for suicide. While it’s sad that a few might have been driven to despair by recent events, we must take a cautious approach to those cases for the sake of other vulnerable people
Four deaths amid protests against the extradition bill have alerted us that suicide might have become the “last hope” of some Hongkongers.

Psychologist Charles Richard Snyder has described suicide as a final act of hope, which might sound paradoxical, given that research over the years affirms the role of hope in protecting people from psychological distress and promoting the ability to cope with the demands of life.

According to Snyder, hope is the will and the way to reach goals; hopeful individuals have stronger wills and more ways to achieve their aims. Yet, what happens when one’s goal is to end one’s life? If death is the final goal, one might make the most of one’s willpower to initiate and sustain an effort to figure out how to make a fatal suicide attempt.

In Greek mythology, when Pandora opened the box, she unleashed the evils in it but also found hope. Was hope a mitigating force of good, or was it one of the evils? After Pandora closed the box, keeping only hope, was it a blessing or a curse?

Answers to the above questions may depend on whether one’s hopeful thinking is related to living or death. In normal circumstances, what people hope for and what goals they set should be related to positive outcomes in their lives. It is only when people perceive their pursuit of goals related to living to be completely blocked that they, in a state of hopelessness, set themselves the final goal to remove themselves from an unbearable situation.

In our recent study that surveyed 2,074 young Chinese adults with a mean age of 19.8, hopelessness was found to be a major risk factor for suicide.

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It’s sad that the current situation in Hong Kong might have driven a few individuals to despair: that some think of their actions against the extradition bill as goals that have been blocked, they can’t think of other means of pursuing their aims, they are apathetic about life goals, and they settle on death as a last act of hope.

With a pall of hopelessness hanging over the city, what should the rest of us do? At the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, we believe that everyone can play a role in protecting everyone else, by paying attention to the following three signs of suicidal intent.

First, a person begins to talk about considering death as a solution to the hopelessness he or she feels; second, the person suddenly becomes full of purposeful energy; third, the person plans, or finds, ways to pursue his or her final goal.

Lately, we have seen Hongkongers responding with concern to those who show suicidal tendencies on social media. However, we need to respond carefully to avert the copycat effect. Certainly, no one wants to see another tragedy. At the same time, we mustn’t overreact.

We appeal to those who need help to make direct contact with the many non-governmental organisations and friends who are ready to help. We also appeal to netizens to refrain from posting news of the suicide cases, which might be too much to bear for those already vulnerable.

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Organisers of any memorial service must exercise caution for it may draw unpredictable responses. People who need help shouldn’t be exposed to further trauma without proper support. It’s time to join together to restore calm and hope to the city. Sensationalising suicide acts would only hurt the people we mean to protect.

“One country, two systems” has always been an experiment, and it is naive to expect the policy to be implemented without hiccups. Still, the authorities should respond to the community’s concerns.
We hope the Hong Kong government and young Hongkongers will seize every opportunity to break the deadlock over extradition. Where there is life, there is hope. And nobody’s goals should be pared down to that one last hope.

Jenny Huen is a doctoral student of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong. Paul Yip is a chair professor of social work and social administration and director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at HKU

If you, or someone you know, are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page