A disturbing wave of suicides among students has made local headlines again. In February, six young people tried to take their own lives. Five succeeded. These recent cases add to a tally of 71 student suicides reported in the past three years.
A survey that came out last week estimates that 31.6 percent of primary school children and 40.3 percent of those in secondary school are at risk of suicide. The new findings match a number of other reports which have looked into the issue of teenage suicide.
Senior primary school children and junior secondary school pupils are more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts as they are in critical transition periods at school.
That said, academic pressure is not the only reason why youngsters decided to end their lives. Other common triggers include breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, conflict with family members, mental illness and troubled friendships.
The good news is statistics have been dropping since the peak in 2003. While there were more male than female suicide cases, the overall numbers are lower than what were recorded in developed countries.
Suicide is preventable but requires everybody’s effort to recognize the importance of mental well-being, said Leesa Tinney, psychologist and lecturer at Monash University in Australia.
“Friends and teachers are in a good position to know whether a young person is in distress because they know the person really well. They can see small changes. Parents do too. But parents sometimes can be too close,” she added. “Noticing depression is key to picking up suicide.
“For depression, you will be looking for signs, such as a person wanting to be on his own, not doing fun things that he used to like doing, and withdrawing from his friends. Other indicators include teary eyes, and changes in sleeping and eating habits. Sometimes, kids come across as agitated or angry. But it’s usually about feeling sad or losing hope. Take note of comments like ‘there is no future’ or ‘there is no point.’ ”
Timely intervention can save lives. Three out of four victims will seek help either implicitly or explicitly before actual suicide attempts, a report submitted to the Education Bureau in November found.
Another local study in 2006 pinpointed the golden hour of intervention, with 16 percent dying within 24 hours of showing suicidal tendencies, 14 percent within a week, 10 percent within a month, 11.3 percent in two months, and 23.3 percent for two months or more before the act.
Based on experiences, Tinney concludes that the types of therapeutic technique used, while all are effective, make a small difference in the counseling outcomes. A large part depends on the young person and his or her relationship with a confidant.
Young people who are more willing to seek help and believe their initiative will help tend to benefit more from a counseling session.
And an adviser who is able to build rapport and a genuinely trusting relationship is more effective than a stranger to talk someone out of suicide.
“You don’t need to have special skills. You just need to be calm, be open, be ready to listen, and be logical to figure out what to do next,” she said.
“Asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide is not going to put the idea into their heads. They are already thinking about it. Asking that question says you are brave enough to have this conversation and hear all the stuff that they are going through.”
“One thing that you should not do is ignore it. Being left alone is pretty awful. And the longer an at-risk young person is left alone is not going to be good.”
If you don’t know how to do a risk assessment, begin with simple questions, such as: “Are you okay?”
Avoid phrasing a question jokingly – such as “Don’t do anything silly,” – because that will put a young person down, Tinney said.
If you feel clumsy doing it, inform a family friend, the child’s school, a counsellor or a family doctor to have that conversation. But that person should be someone the child is familiar with.
With older adolescents, their personalities are already well-formed. They have developed their own set of coping skills to deal with adverse situations. Some children see cutting a wrist or suicide as a way to cope and it’s normal.
Even so, building resilience is possible. A confidant’s role is to create lots of different coping options when a young person feels awful, Tinney said.
Establishing a connection beyond academia, giving a young person a sense of belonging and purpose, helping them structure their daily lives, assisting them to learn how to make good choices, and teaching them to laugh can shield a young person from negative experiences.
An online resource compiled by Australian clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller is a good starting point for parents and teachers to learn more about building resilience in children.
The article first appeared in the Standard on May 23, 2017.