Hong Kong's student suicides: Why mental health issues need to be normalised

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Hong Kong has received an alarming wake-up call through a recent spate of student suicides. Though our city is known for academic achievement and pressure, help is never far away. Josiah Ng digs deep to find out what can be done. Photography by Calvin Sit.

Almost everyone knows a student. Whether you’re a parent to one, a friend of one, or you look up to one as a brother, sister or anything in between, we all know a student, and we all know the pressures that come with studying in Hong Kong and being in a learning-intensive environment.

Worryingly, the 2015-16 academic year seems to be the year when the pressure has become too much for Hong Kong’s students. Since September last year, a staggering 22 of them have committed suicide, beginning with a graduate student from Chinese University Hong Kong (CUHK) on the first day of the academic year, and including a 12-year-old child who took his life a little less than a month ago on March 8.

Sources are quick to point to Hong Kong’s poor mental health, caused mainly by academic pressure and a need to maintain regional success. A statement from the Education Bureau proudly boasts of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, announcing how our 15-year-olds placed second in 2012 in reading literacy, as well as maintaining a spot in the top three among 65 countries for mathematics and science. But do the ends justify the means?

The Hong Kong University Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention (CSRP) quotes several studies undertaken in recent decades in a statement to us that noted depression arising from stressful life events such as childhood adversity, poor peer relationships and academic stress.

That being said, the government and higher institutions aren’t merely sitting back, especially after March’s recent spike in student suicides, though the effectiveness and public perception of their measures varies widely. The Education Bureau is responsible for a range measures – from a rather curious ‘no suicide’ contract blithely attached to an 88-page handbook issued to schools, to an emergency committee established in the wake of the March suicides which includes the president of the HKU Students’ Union, Althea Suen Hiu-nam, as its sole student representative. This is all in addition to an array of privately organised counselling efforts arranged by schools to help care for any suicidal students, most notably at CUHK. In a press release dated March 8, an open letter from CUHK’s dean of students, Dennis Ng, discusses a ‘task force jointly led by pro-vice-chancellors Michael Hui and professor Fanny Cheung... to conduct a comprehensive review of the mental well-being services for [CUHK’s] students.’ In a separate release, the pro-vice-chancellors stated that the school’s counselling services handled 725 cases, where post-counsel surveys ‘show that 60 percent of the students found the counselling useful and their problems had either been resolved or received referral for better care’.

CUHK

Sadly, however, despite the wide variety of preventive measures and counselling choices, a significant problem remains in the unwillingness of students to access these lifelines. “In particular,” the pro-vice-chancellors state in their release, “we note that many of the students in distress do not come forward. We should pay special attention to these off-the-radar individuals by adopting a proactive and concerted scheme of assistance.”

So is it the victim’s fault then? Hardly. Angie Shum of the CSRP explains that ‘because of the severe stigma of mental illness and poor outreaching behaviour in Chinese culture, it is particularly important to promote mental health as well as preventing and treating mental disorders in the early stage’.

Nicole Tanner, a third-year CUHK student studying medicine and surgery, corroborates, “My faculty is supportive they hire counsellors, give tons of talks, and give lots of sessions, but it’s not enough. You can hire 10 more counsellors but if there remains a stigma against mental illness, people are not going to see the counsellor. It’s the stigma that keeps students from seeing anyone.” What’s worse, is that the hesitation to vocalise can come from more than just a social stigma.

Tanner was also a classmate of 20-year-old Christy Cheung Wing-yan, a third-year medical student who took her life on Saturday March 5. “With Christy, even after she died,” Tanner recounts, “nobody really came out and said ‘Oh, I’m her friend’ or ‘I was really close to her’, because she was really quiet. She didn’t really share her feelings either. She was super quiet. A few of [her classmates] felt a little guilty, like they had this opportunity to talk to her but they didn’t know. I think everyone was very shocked because nobody expected it, and even people who did talk to her, didn’t really expect her to feel this way.”

And her academic record? “From what I’ve heard,” Tanner continues, “she was always very academically focused. She was always [getting] A minuses or otherwise good grades. She wasn’t doing poorly, compared to [other medical students].”

So the problem appears not to be a lack of social services devoted to tackling mental health care, but a hesitation to access them or share one’s private mental struggles with friends or experts. “Our generation needs to take a more proactive role in destigmatising mental illness,” advocates Tanner. “If we don’t normalise the conversation about mental illness, this is going to perpetuate. Others will be less willing to seek help.”

Professors Michael Hui and Fanny Cheung, in their CSRP open letter, charge the public, “To go an extra mile in staying alert to any signs of turmoil from those around you or in your charge: students who have been absent for some time? Not ventured outside their hostel room? Poor grades? Emotional disturbance? These may be signs of desperation.”

The Department of Health, in their statement to us, also urge the public to action. “To safeguard the health of students in particular on... promoting mental health and wellbeing, [we need to] help and empower them to cope with stress and face adversity.”

It seems, finally, that the public and the government are in agreement on this. “I feel like the government isn’t doing too bad right now,” concludes Nicole. “They’re taking an active role toward looking for causes and persuading students to get help. The whole destigmatising process needs to be more active than what the government is putting money into. It needs to come from us, and it needs to come from students being more proactive.”

If you or anyone else around you may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact the Samaritan Befrienders immediately on 2389 2222. For more information on suicide prevention and mental health, visit csrp.edu.hk.

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