Friday, July 31, 2009

One young life lost each month last year to suicide:

New Paper
31 July 2009

One young life lost each month last year to suicide:

What could have pushed them over the edge?

By Liew Hanqing

TWELVE youngsters in the 10 to 19 age group took their lives last year.

That makes it one young life lost every month, according to statistics released by Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), a suicide prevention and support group.

Of course, it's just a small fraction of the pool of thousands in this age group here.

But even one life lost this way is one too many, prompting observers to once again try to make sense of something that is ultimately senseless.

The latest casualties: Two second-year students from a junior college in the west.

What could have triggered these events?

Study/exam pressure or a relationship issue? Was it over a struggle over identity and belonging?

The New Paper understands that the two students were classmates. The first death occurred on 3 Jul, and the second, on 20 Jul.

The principal of the junior college said: 'They were good students who did not have any problems with their studies.'

She added that the students' classmates are being counselled.

Over the last few years, other lives have been lost in the same way. Several were from junior colleges. (See report on facing page.)

To catch such problems early, schools have, over the years, introduced measures to reach out to students, including a tiered referral system to identify troubled students.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Education said teachers who notice anything amiss with a student can provide support by referring students to trained teacher-counsellors, part-time school counsellors or full-time school counsellors.

'The common issues that have been referred for counselling are relationship issues with family and peers, and motivation issues, for example, the lack or loss of interest in studies and goal-oriented direction,' the spokesman said.

One teacher, who spoke to The New Paper on condition of anonymity, makes his teenage students keep journals to get to know them better.

He works at a secondary school in the East and teaches mainly students in the Normal (Technical) Stream.

He said the journals provide an outlet for students who find it difficult to voice their personal problems.

He said: 'Through their journals, they are able to write reflections on the problems that they may face.

Trust needed

'But first, teachers must win their students' trust. Students must believe that their teachers will not show their journals to anybody.'

Tell-tale signs of depression, he said, may not be apparent even to those closest to them.

Through his student's journals, the teacher said he has managed to identify certain problems that needed urgent attention.

'I found out that one of them had actually attempted suicide when she was in primary school,' he said.

Unplanned pregnancies and troubled families are other situations he has also come across in reading students' journals.

'The problem is that teenagers are not willing to speak up about their problems, and sometimes we don't find out until it's too late,' he said.

Child psychiatrist Brian Yeo agreed, adding that suicides by teenagers often take their families by surprise.

He said: 'A lot of communication is done online - on MSN Messenger, through text messages, and Facebook.

'A teenager may look okay superficially, but there are issues which only close friends they communicate online with may be aware of.'

Red flags often surface in messages youths send to each other through these platforms, Dr Yeo said.

He cited relationship problems as a factor that often triggers suicide attempts by youths.

School-related stress is also common.

Dr Yeo added that he usually sees a spike in the number of patients who see him for school-related stress issues in the months leading up to major exams such as the A Levels.

He said: 'These days, I have started seeing the numbers spike even earlier, because the stress begins even before the preliminary examinations.'

Ms Christine Wong, executive director of SOS, said most teenage boys who called the SOS hotline spoke about issues relating to identity.

'Many shared their difficulties coping with stresses and the challenges of everyday life, and some experienced symptoms such as feeling down, anxious or lethargic.

'Female teenagers expressed concerns relating to studies, exams or needing someone to talk to.'

What's more, parents whose children are in junior colleges and polytechnics often find it difficult to communicate with their children, much less keep track of what their children are going through.

Said Dr Yeo: 'At this age, teenagers are often closer to their peers than to their parents.

'Parents may be less involved in their childrens' lives during these years, and may find it difficult to pick up the warning signs.'

He stressed the importance of properly debriefing those who have lost friends to suicide, especially if there is more than one case from a single group.

Said Dr Yeo: 'There could be problems endemic to a particular class or cohort. It is important for these problems to be identified, and for affected students to be informed about where they can go to for help.'

Looking at the big picture in Singapore, the total number of suicides (all age groups) last year fell to 364, a five-year low.

But that's still about one suicide a day.



Signs of depression

1 Signs of depression or feelings of hopelessness

2 Restlessness, lack of interest or energy

3 Changes in eating habits, sleep patterns, or personal appearance

4 Any dramatic changes in behaviour, actions, or attitude

5 Preoccupation with death or dying

6 Bad grades, failing exams, dropping out of hobbies, sports, school or job

# Youths should call the SOS hotline at 1800-221-4444 or e-mail if they are in crisis or feeling suicidal.



31 July 2009

Sec 3 student falls to death from a block of flats in Sengkang. Student was healthy and had no known relationship problems.

13 Sep 2006

First-year junior college student from China falls to death from a block of flats in Woodlands.

28 Aug 2006

Second-year junior college student, a recipient of the prestigious Asean scholarship, falls to death from a block of flats in Balestier.

7 Mar 2006

First-year junior college student fell to death from a HDB block at Sims Avenue.

3 Mar 2006

Second-year student from a top junior college fell to death from a HDB block in Bedok.

Putting spotlight on suicide

AS PART of the SOS Suicide Awareness Week from 7 to 13 Sep, SOS is organising a photography contest and exhibition for the public.

The contest, based on the theme 'Life's Caring Moments', aims to increase community awareness on suicide-related issues.

You can take part in the contest by sending in photographs that reflect empathy, understanding and care.

The top three entries stand to win $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 respectively in cash prizes.

The closing date for submission of photographs is 14 Aug. The contest form can be downloaded from http://samaritansofsingapore.

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