Youth suicide: When every death becomes a mere statistic

December 19, 2023 09:46
Over 8% of Hong Kong secondary school students had had suicidal thoughts in the past year, as a survey revealed.Photo: RTHK

It would be no understatement to say that our city is in the midst of a serious mental health crisis.

Suicide numbers amongst the youth of this city have almost doubled in less than a decade, to a record high – that’s a headline taken from September this year. Bearing the brunt of the crisis are our youth, aged 18 to 25 years old. Over 8% of Hong Kong secondary school students had had suicidal thoughts in the past year, as a survey revealed.

When we hear these statistics, we are instinctively likely to feel somewhat nonplussed – after all, what do these numbers really mean? Statistics are helpful in communication and knowledge transmission insofar as they can be accurately and vividly translated into images. Yet the power of numbers is blunted by repeated exposure, by ubiquity, by the statistical frequency with which we subconsciously and inadvertently conflate normality.

1,080 suicides took place in Hong Kong in 2022 – that’s more than 1 in every 7,500 people. There is nothing normal about over 1,000 individuals – with families, loved ones, and friends – choosing to end their own lives for reasons that feel (even if they are not, in fact) beyond their control. There is nothing normal about adolescent students putting a premature, ugly end to their own lives, because they see and feel no hope – even with the best of care and institutional support in some cases. Many of those who perished have their best years ahead abruptly and preemptively eliminated – wiped out. Many of them might go onto having children of their own, careers of moderate success, or, just lives that are worth living – but for the fact that they would never come. Lives never lived. Opportunities never seized.

And whose fault is this? It would be easy to lay the blame at particular stakeholders. Surely, the deaths reflect a failure – a failure on the part of school administrators, teachers, or custodians to have caught symptoms of the mental illnesses or anxieties, personal or non-personal motivations that precipitated teenage suicides. Others would point fingers at parents, suggesting that as families and loved ones of those who passed, they should have known better. After all, tiger parenting has long been a source of significant mental stress and anxiety, as some commentators have argued – though few have proven through statistically verified and rigorous research. And then there are those who apportion blame to the social media platforms – it’s TikTok (unavailable in Hong Kong), Snapchat, or Instagram – the root causes of the malaise of insecurity and self-doubt, reifying and amplifying negative sentiments to keep teenagers hooked onto these platforms.

Playing the blame game is easy. Tackling the problem is much harder. The mental health crisis in Hong Kong is a collective failure. It is, as Young terms it, a structural injustice – one that follows from structural processes in which most (if not all) actors could be behaving in a way that is morally unblameworthy and non-liability-inducing; where no one is acting out of line, and yet where each and every individual plays some role in causally contributing towards and molding the deleterious effects in question. Depression is not attributable to any singular, particular factor. Bipolar personality disorder cannot be reduced to mere behavioural traits or the product of negligence on the part of educators. Non-mental-health-related reasons for suicide exist, and are just as salient – if not more so – than particular mental health conditions. Simple answers do not give rise to solutions, they give rise to simplistic misunderstandings and misdiagnosis of the problem at hand.

And there’s an even bigger problem. Our counsellors, therapists, doctors, as well as social workers, educators, and mental health experts, are systemically underpaid, underfunded, and overstretched. Distressed education and counselling professionals have long warned of the dangers of burnout and over-exertion of our limited, highly overworked professional workforce – those who are on the very frontlines of combating and responding to the surge in mental and social health concerns. A chronically under-funded public mental healthcare sector, a systemic fetishisation over success and the resultant stigmatisation of talking about personal struggles, and a societal culture that valourises efficiency and seeming, superficial strength, have all contributed towards a deeply perverse and distorted culture where few could receive attention, or the space to voice out and articulate clearly their concerns.

As a city of finance, of business, we like to talk numbers. Numbers are precise. Numbers are helpfully simple and clear. Yet numbers are also fundamentally deceptive. They do not give us the full picture. They do not tell us the human stories. They allow us to walk free, scot-free, guilt-free, as we relegate our contemplation over mental health issues to the domain of ‘resource allocation’ and ‘budgeting’. When every death becomes a mere statistic, when we reduce our fellow citizens and human beings into mere ‘human capital’ or ‘labour’, there’s a little part in us that dies in silence.

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Assistant Professor, HKU