First published in the South China Morning Post on Friday, 11 March, 2016
The surge of suicides among students in Hong Kong over the past six
months is very worrying. We have witnessed an increasing trend of youth
suicides in the past few years, despite a continuous reduction in the
overall rate in Hong Kong. Our suicide rate was about 11 per 100,000
people in 2014, below the world average of 13. While older adults have a
higher suicide rate – twice the average – the recent spate of suicides
among young people has triggered a response from the community.
It is indeed very sad, and not only a waste of talent; it also causes much grief and disruption to the affected families. Almost without fail, suicide notes left by these young people express their regret and offer apologies to their parents.
Young people are more likely to be affected by social media than others. Some of those who committed suicide lived much of their lives in a virtual world and struggled to communicate with others in person. A reluctance to seek help is a major problem among these young people and this can mean that sometimes they are unknown to the medical and social care system. Thus, no timely interventions can be made, even though support services are available.
Suicide can be contagious, leading to a wave of copycat deaths, especially when it is reported sensationally by the media. In 2010, a suicide cluster was identified with six deaths of those aged 14 to 25 in the same district within four months.Our centre has taken a multidisciplinary approach, working with local stakeholders to conduct a three-year community-based suicide-prevention programme. In our study, we observed the mental well-being of young people, who are likely to be affected by many factors including academic performance, unemployment and social disconnectedness.
We have been supported by various stakeholders in the community – for example, non-governmental organisations, hospital emergency departments, the Social Welfare Department, police, and local housing and neighbourhood associations. Each stakeholder has tried to bridge the gaps in service for the vulnerable.
For those who have attempted to harm themselves, protocols in providing a treatment plan and aftercare have been improved.
Also, improving the employment prospects of young people, with support from the Labour Department, is important to their mental well-being. Most importantly, awareness in supporting youth suicide prevention and mental health in the community is now much stronger. Things have been improving with support from the government and the community.Dealing with suicides among university students is even more challenging, as they usually have a much lower suicide rate than those of a similar age who are in work or unemployed. We should ask whether there are gaps or blind spots in our university education system. Perhaps we should pay more attention to enhancing students' mental health. Has the recent curriculum change, from three to four years of tertiary education, left them unprepared, given that students are now younger when they go to university and might struggle in a very different learning environment?
Sometimes, young people's struggles can be related to failures of the adult world, too. The family support system is weakening as the number of divorces increases. It is estimated that one in five marriages ends in divorce today in Hong Kong. When couples break up, their children are often hardest hit. The well-being of children from a divorced family suffers, while the poverty rate among divorced households is twice that of married households.
Have we done enough to support these young people? Can the school system make its curriculum more engaging? All young people should be given opportunities. Our academically orientated system does not work well for all. Some important life skills, such as development of self-esteem and problem-solving, have never been properly promoted in the curriculum.Sensational reporting of suicides can mislead vulnerable people . Our research shows a rise in the number of internet searches for ways to commit suicide as incidences of suicide increase. It's important for internet providers and users to offer support to those who express distress through social media. Providing information and referring them to professionals can prevent tragedies.
Our centre is developing a WhatsApp programme to engage young people and a website to promote well-being with the aim of providing information in a creative way to make them feel connected. We are also working to encourage people to help those in need.
Every one of us needs to be a gatekeeper to stop such tragedies. Whether in school, the workplace or at home, we can all seize opportunities to win back young people; we can make a difference. Young people need to see there is hope, to give them the strength to get through the storm. Let's give them that, rather than more despair.
Paul Yip is director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong. He is a member of La Trobe Asia's advisory board.