Don't blame radical activists for rise in student suicide cases

March 10, 2016 15:43
Students feel a lot of pressure in an education system that focuses on their academic performance rather than their individual development. Photo: HKEJ

On Wednesday evening, a 20-year-old arts student from the University of Hong Kong jumped to his death from the rooftop of a building in Wong Tai Sin where he lived with his parents.

The student reportedly left a note suggesting he was depressed due to academic and other pressures.

His death brought to 20 the number of student suicides since the beginning of the current school year in September last year.

While the number of cases mounted, the government of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying appeared not to be bothered at all, until of late when education minister Eddie Ng finally decided to call a meeting on the issue.

What's happening to our children?

Many teachers and parents are at a loss, and tend to blame themselves, although it can't be said that they're not doing their utmost for the benefit of our kids.

Others blame the current education system that focuses on academic performance rather than the individual development of the students, and this has put so much pressure on the students, some of whom find it hard to cope.

Of course, the government will be quick to deny that these cases are directly related to the education policy.

The education minister expressed his regret over the cases. He was scheduled to hold a meeting with teachers, parents and psychologists on Thursday to try to sort out the issue.

His department has stressed that the school system has mechanism to deal with the crisis, and the current curriculum has been devised to help students build their character and develop a positive outlook in life.

All those efforts, however, didn't seem to have worked for at least 20 students who chose to end their lives in the current school year.

Why are our government officials so slow in responding to this crisis? 

It may be that they feel suicides are outside the scope of government policy, that despite their best efforts, there is hardly anything they can do to prevent people who are suffering from depression from taking their own lives. That's probably the reason for their silence.

On Wednesday, pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao came out with a column that seeks to shed light on the rise in the number of student suicides. The title: "Student suicides related to extreme violence".

Apart from the "traditional" factors linked to suicides, says the article, it cannot be ruled out that, based on the rising incidence and frequency, the cases may have something to do with the fact that society is full of contradictions and violence.

Some students fail to exercise resilience in the face of pressure, such as when they are criticized by their parents and teachers, and such psychological weakness could push them to a dark view of life, according to the article, which was published next to the newspaper editorial.

"If society is harmonious, prosperous and full of hope, young people may see the light of hope, and they may chat with their friends and teachers. But when society is full of resentment, controversies and hostility, some may only see the darkness. 

"The parliament is full of chaos. There was even a riot in Mong Kok when people celebrated the first day of the Lunar New Year. The youngsters attacked the police with bricks on the streets.

"The young people who witnessed such circumstances will feel frustrated and disappointed. How can they find hope and happiness?"

The article concludes: "For the sake of our youth, to those who continue to mess up Hong Kong, please stop." 

It's quite surprising that the column avoided mentioning the role played by the government's education policy in shaping the attitude of students and their view towards life.

Shifting the blame to radical activists is pointless, and may even be dangerous.

Of course, everyone desires a harmonious society.

But the current political deadlock, which is the source of so much tension and conflicts in society at present, is mainly due to the government's refusal to listen to public opinion.

The Hong Kong government insists on pouring billions of dollars into white elephants to please Beijing and inject politics into the school curriculum, such as the pro-Beijing patriotic education curriculum. All this creates resentment and hostility. 

So who is to blame for the discord in society? The radical groups who are reacting to these pro-Beijing policies or the government which insists on foisting these policies on the people?

In fact, we should stop this blame game. Instead, we should try to look into the roots of the issues affecting our students and think of ways to help them cope with the pressures of studies and family, of society and life.

For starters, the education department may consider reducing the workload of both teachers and students, leaving sufficient time for them to better communicate with each other and build mutual trust. That could help in reducing the pressures on both sides.

In primary school, for example, kids on average study for more than seven hours at school and spend another hour on their homework each day. That's certainly a lot longer than the global average of six hours.

The massive volume of academic work placed on the students deprives them of the time to enjoy their childhood and relieve themselves of the pressure at school.

Teachers, students and parents all suffer from the pressure of having to follow the government curriculum and meeting the teaching requirements.

Government does have the responsibility to ease the pressure on our children.

If the government has to point the finger at the violence and hostility in society, it should also blame itself. 

Were it not for its indifference and intransigence, we should be having a harmonious society.

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EJ Insight writer