On Monday, Sept. 10, as has been done every year since 2003, we marked the World Suicide Prevention Day.
Over 800,000 people die by suicide every year around the world, and 60 percent of the recorded suicides take place in Asia and East Asia.
Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all is among the 17 sustainable development goals set by the United Nations.
In Hong Kong, the overall suicide rate was down from a record high of 18.8 people per 100,000 population in 2003 to 12.4 people per 100,000 in 2017.
However, the continued rise in the suicide rate among young people has become a cause for growing concern not only in our city but also around the world.
In recent years, a number of teen suicides in Hong Kong have deeply alarmed the public.
In 2016, the suicide rate among teenagers aged between 15 and 24 was 9.5 per 100,000 population, up from 8.3 in 2012.
Even more worrisome is that during the same period, the number of suicide cases recorded among the city’s full-time students jumped by 52.6 percent, from 19 in 2012 to 29 in 2016, while their overall suicide rate also increased by 76.1 percent, up from 4.6 per 100,000 population in 2012 to 8.1 in 2016.
In the past, schools served as an effective barrier in preventing adolescent suicide. The suicide rate among students was relatively lower than that of working or unemployed youths.
However, that gap has been quickly disappearing in recent years, with students now being equally, or even more, predisposed to suicide than young people who are either working or unemployed.
There are a lot of risk factors behind the rising tide of youth suicides, including family problems, unemployment, unpleasant living conditions, and poor interpersonal relations. For instance, the lack of emotional support in single-parent families results from a growing number of families where parents divorce.
Students, meanwhile, are often overwhelmed by their studies and exam-related stress, not to mention their worsening apprehension about their future.
The problem has been compounded by the implementation of the six-year secondary school education structure, which, in my view, is definitely not an ideal arrangement for academically underperforming students.
Meanwhile, the fact that many parents still see academic results as the overriding and even the only criterion for judging the achievements of their children is simply adding to their stress and limiting their career options.
Worse still, the exam-oriented learning environment in mainstream schools has made it very difficult to promote mental health among students.
As such, we need to introduce substantial changes to our school examination system, enhance individual support for students with emotional issues, and promote mental health among young people.
That countries like Finland, Australia and the United States have higher teen suicide rates than Hong Kong despite their better learning environment for students simply indicates that providing a good learning environment alone isn’t enough to address the pressing issue of rising student suicide rates.
Stemming the rising tide of teen suicides would require the concerted and coordinated efforts of different sectors and professions in our society.
Unfortunately, however, suicide prevention efforts in Hong Kong and in neighboring regions often place overwhelming emphasis on the clinical treatment of depression disorders or other mental illnesses, while overlooking the importance of having a vision on how to improve public mental health and allocation of resources for the purpose.
In a nutshell, in order to reduce our city’s teen suicide rate, we must focus on promoting researches, facilitating knowledge transfer, enhancing resilience among students, and providing sufficient training on suicide prevention.
“Knowledge transfer” is like an engine that can help disseminate the knowledge on suicide prevention in the community so as to raise public awareness about mental health and remove the social stigma attached to suicidal people.
In particular, the government must step up efforts in providing more training for teachers in order to boost their capabilities in preventing teen suicide and promoting emotional health among their students.
After all, the key to successfully combating teen suicide is prevention rather than treatment.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 10
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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