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Music

Hong Kong rock bands hope their suicide awareness benefit concert will smash stigma against talking about it

Stunned by the suicides of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, and of people close to band members, The Raptors are joining The David Bowie Knives, Jimmy2Times and The Privateers for a benefit gig at Kitec

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 6:48pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 7:08pm

Last May, singer Chris Cornell – the frontman of Soundgarden and a member of Audioslave – was found dead in a Detroit hotel room. The 52-year-old had hanged himself. Three months later Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Linkin Park, met the same end at his home in Los Angeles.

The suicides shocked and saddened music fans around the world, and in Hong Kong, local rock band The Raptors was especially hard hit. Songs by both Cornell and Bennington were regularly on the group’s playlist, and lead singer Sky Suen is a big fan of Linkin Park.

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“Their deaths really affected us. Even at those high levels where seemingly they are living this wonderful life, there can be this dark secret that is eating away at them,” says Greg Sutcliffe, the band’s bassist.

Both he and Suen have lost someone close to them to suicide. In 2006, Sutcliffe’s brother, who had a history of depression, committed suicide. And in 2014, Suen’s boyfriend Aaron took his own life. They experienced not only the pain of losing someone they loved, but also the taboo surrounding suicide, and the reluctance of people to openly discuss their thoughts and feelings for fear of being stigmatised.

Sutcliffe had no idea his brother was at risk of suicide. “The thing about people with depression is they are very good at disguising it, partly because there is such a stigma attached to mental health so they are pressured into not speaking out,” he says.

“Being aware of people’s mental health issues is fundamental to suicide prevention. It’s incumbent on people who have survived suicide to talk about how terrible and how lasting it is. My family is still suffering 11 years on.”

We need to be more open to talking about these things and making it easier for people to own up to having suicidal thoughts and share their problems. Currently there is such a stigma
Greg Sutcliffe

Wanting to mark the passing of two of their favourite musicians and create an environment in which suicide can be discussed without stigma, they decided to host a charity concert, with money raised going to aid the Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong.

“Somewhere I Belong” will be held at Kitec on January 20, from 7pm to 10pm, and will feature three Hong Kong rock bands – The David Bowie Knives, Jimmy2Times and The Raptors – and a folk band, The Privateers.

“We want a concert in Chris and Chester’s memory. We want people to come and hang out and listen to good music and have fun. Listening to music is a good way to release your emotions. We want people to come with their friends and meet new friends,” says Suen.

Each band’s playlist for the night will include songs connected to the benefit gig’s theme – “Listen Up, Speak Out: Suicide Prevention Starts With Suicide Awareness” – and of personal significance. The Raptors will play Audioslave’s Be Yourself and a song by Linkin Park, New Divide.

Be Yourself is a very strong song all about just being yourself. And New Divide is about how to get back from the dark side. All the songs we’ll play will be quite positive,” says Suen.

Jimmy2Times, a band made up of English Schools Foundation teachers, will play Dakota by the Stereophonics.

“It’s a song that we’ve always loved playing and reminds us of Tim [Ford] and the great times we had together as a band,” says John Edwards, Jimmy2Times’ drummer.

Ford was the vice-principal of King George V School. In 2012, the 46-year-old was found hanging in the bathroom at home by his wife Jane. His suicide shocked his family, friends and the school, where his wife and some bandmates worked.

“Tim was the founding member of the band and the guitarist. When he took his own life, it was devastating. It came out of the blue, he didn’t mention anything to us at all,” says Edwards.

In 2016, 1,000 people in Hong Kong committed suicide, and the number fluctuates annually between 800 and 1,200, says Clarence Tsang, executive director of Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong. Although the common assumption is that young people account for the majority of deaths, it is actually men aged between 60 and 70 who are most at risk. Student suicides tend to cluster at the start of an academic year or term, he says. And men, broadly speaking, are more vulnerable than women.

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“Men are less able to express themselves when they have emotional problems, while women are more willing to talk about their emotions with a friend, family member or counsellor. Men are also less willing to seek professional help,” says Tsang.

Sutcliffe says current attitudes towards mental health issues need to change, and he applauds Britain’s Prince Harry for speaking openly about his personal struggles last year and campaigning against the stigma of mental illness.

“There is an overwhelming sense that people are just a bit sad and they need to man up – and that doesn’t help,” says Sutcliffe.

He says people who are feeling suicidal need to feel that they have others on their side, that they are not alone.

“As a society, a community, we need to be more open to talking about these things and making it easier for people to own up to having suicidal thoughts and share their problems. Currently there is such a stigma,” says Sutcliffe, adding that just being there for a friend and listening to them is a huge benefit.

So many people’s lives have been touched by this issue that it’s ridiculous it’s not more openly discussed
John Edwards

Since her boyfriend’s suicide, Suen says, she has been very aware of friends who are struggling and goes out of her way to be there for them.

“When people have depression they can’t hear you at all. They just want you to listen to them, to care about them. I did that for a few of my friends and they are much happier now. Instead of being depressed after Aaron died, I try to use the experience to be positive,” says Suen.

It is not uncommon for those close to someone who committed suicide to fall into depression themselves. Suen says a close friend of Aaron’s fell into a downward spiral after his death. He moved to Britain, split up with his wife and became quite isolated. Suen says friends clubbed together to buy him an air ticket to return to Hong Kong and got him treatment.

“He needed someone to listen to him. Now, when he gets down, he calls his friends and we hang out,” says Suen.

Suicide is a risk for the bereaved. “Survivors need to start taking better care of each other,” she says.

Tsang emphasises that when a friend has a problem, the best thing to do is to listen and try to understand.

“Especially for local Chinese, we have a tendency to give advice and judge, and try to find solutions, but it’s not appropriate to do that. Giving solutions risks giving the sense that you don’t understand,” says Tsang.

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Samaritan Befrienders was set up in Hong Kong 57 years ago, and although established by Westerners it has focused on the local rather than expatriate community. Tsang sees that beginning to change.

“In the last three or four years, the Western community in Hong Kong has been trying to do more in suicide prevention work and we are getting more support. That’s very good. We hope it will continue,” he says.

In Britain, there is a growing awareness about mental health issues in the music industry.

“It’s an epidemic. In the UK they are doing a lot around awareness. Perhaps artistic, creative people are more vulnerable,” says Sutcliffe.

Last month a new 24/7 mental health service was launched to help people within the music industry. “Music Minds Matter” was launched in the wake of the death of Bennington and will offer support and counselling for musicians and people in the music industry who have mental health issues.

The new British service follows a study conducted in 2016 – “Can Music Make You Sick?” – that found that of 2,000 musicians surveyed, 71.1 per cent said they had experienced panic attacks or high levels of anxiety, and 68.5 per cent reported having suffered depression.

Tickets for Hong Kong’s first benefit gig to raise suicide awareness are on sale now through Cityline, which can be accessed through the concert’s homepage somewhereibelong.org. Sutcliffe hopes to make this an annual event and to include even more bands next year.

“So many people’s lives have been touched by this issue that it’s ridiculous it’s not more openly discussed and that people don’t feel comfortable discussing it, which is why this is such a great cause,” says Edwards.

Where to get help

24-hour hotline at Suicide Prevention Services: +852 2382 0000

24-hour hotline at Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong: +852 2389 2222

Society for the Promotion of Hospice Care: +852 2868 1211