Wednesday, February 13, 2019,11:23
Are we doing enough to prevent suicide among young people?
By Stefan Dalton
Wednesday, February 13, 2019, 11:23 By Stefan Dalton

Most of you will remember two horrific suicides that took place on the same day in 2017. A boy was found on the ground after jumping to his death in Tai Po. A mere few hours later, another boy jumped off the roof of a mall in Yau Tong. He was just 11 years old.

Suicide in children is an extremely painful subject to discuss but it must not be socially stigmatized. Ranking as a leading cause of death among the youth of Hong Kong, estimates suggest there are more than 70 suicidal incidents a year, while 1 in 10 have suicidal thoughts.

Conscious attention must be continuously given to prevent suicides in young people. What influencers are driving our children to such irrevocable end before they have had a chance to experience the world?

Some insight has been granted through my own observations as a psychologist.

Endless school workloads and through-the-roof grade expectations are common factors. How does one simultaneously study multiple subjects to near expert level, develop Mozart-like musical expertise, learn  multiple languages, complete mountains of home work on short notice, exam preparation, while also trying to impress teachers, meet parental expectations and not to neglect socializing with your peers.

What insanity are we imposing on our children? Do we as adults commit ourselves to this chaos daily? I think not. What authorization have we granted ourselves to enforce these expectations on our children? Our overseas counterparts seem to develop children academically with half the workload.

Conscious attention must be continuously given to prevent suicides in young people ... It’s risky to turn them into jack of all trades, master of none, which is bound to lead to disappointment

Consequently, students seem to be unable to imagine a life after their studies. The arbitrary “picture yourself five years from now” task, a seemingly simple task, isn’t something most school children can answer. I am baffled by how many children are working vigorously toward a goal they don’t even have.

We should be encouraging children to harbor specific goals and to develop their skills that would facilitate their achieving such an objective. It’s risky to turn them into jack of all trades, master of none, which is bound to lead to disappointment.

Perhaps it’s desirable to have the highest grades in the class but at what cost? It’s certainly of no use of having the highest grades if it risks suicides. We need more school programs to reveal life after the chaos. We seriously need to rethink the pressures we impose on our children under the vague excuse that it’s for their own good. And let’s not forget the pressure works both ways, against the parents as well. 

We need to reach out to children. We need to guide them. We need to monitor them at school, personally. We need to encourage our children to speak their mind. We need to listen. We need to create an environment where they feel comfortable, safe and understood. We can’t depend on children reaching out to us.

In schools we need to continuously promote emotional health. Few people want to speak about suicide prevention with children but we must. If you are concerned, ask children direct questions concerning thoughts of self-harm, suicidal plans and suicidal attempts. Asking a child doesn’t put suicidal thoughts into their head. Those thoughts are already there. They are scared. Asking children opens up the possibility of help. If teachers feel unsure what to say or worry they will make the problem worse, let’s implement prevention training for teachers.

If schools create policies on suicide, teachers, parents and students will know what to do in any given circumstance that calls for action.

How can we spot suicidal cases in school children?

It’s not enough to deal with suicide when it happens. We need to prevent it. We need to be ready with concrete interventions when even the smallest sign of suicide becomes apparent. Most cases of suicide exhibit precursor signs leading up to the horrific event. Parents and teachers need to be aware of such telling behavior.

Suicide can be the consequence of depression, post-traumatic stress and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Symptoms to look out for are perennial moodiness, a loss of interest in daily activities, feelings of hopelessness, self-harming behaviors, thoughts of having no future, non-acceptance of a recent traumatic event and withdrawing from friendship groups and social activities. Perhaps the most chilling sign of suicide is when a child becomes abruptly calm after exhibiting the above symptoms because they may have already chosen to end their life.

Up to 75 percent of children contemplating suicide will tell someone albeit it may through the form of an enraged argument. But not all children will respond to probing questions. Any sign, no matter how small should be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Campaigns such as Suicide Prevention Services (2382 0000) and Samaritans Suicide Prevention (2896 0000) can be contacted directly 24 hours for information should anyone be concerned.

Do not take any chances with our future generation. 

The author has done extensive professional work in educational, occupational and developmental neuropsychology. He has taught in various local institutes.