Losing a child to suicide, is beyond devastating; it challenges you to the very core. All you had thought to be true is thrown into disarray. Pain and emptiness are your constant companions. The overarching emotions are deep, deep sadness and total bewilderment. Why? How could this have happened? Self-recrimination runs deep. What if… If only… I should have…
Stigma continues to shroud youth mental health and suicide. People in need of help are afraid to admit having suicidal thoughts and will avoid seeking help because of the judgement of others.
If the adults around young people have stigmatised views on mental health, and display fear of it, this can reflect negatively onto the young person and make it more likely that they will pick up on and believe these views. Vital conversations don’t happen between friends, in families, or broadly in a community, for fear of what people may say.
Knowing what I know now, some factors could be critical to preventing other young people from taking their lives.
We all have physical and mental health and it is important to give them the same status and attention. Mental health issues are present in nearly all families, as are physical health issues. I understood about physical health and how to look after oneself and one’s family. My understanding of mental health was nothing in comparison.
If we all took it upon ourselves to treat mental and physical health equally, it would be the norm to have every day conversations that ask about feelings and emotions and check in on mood, in the same way we ask someone we care for how they’re doing after a spell of sickness or a medical procedure.
Just like physical ill health, it is possible to recover from mental ill health, and a person’s suffering can be managed towards a new healthy well-being life, starting to live the life they want.
Before my tragic loss, I had admired the efforts to bring mental health into the open, felt sympathy for those with a condition. I knew, but I didn’t understand what mental health disorders are and, as someone who had been fortunate not to have experienced any mental health issues, I knew nothing about what it’s like to live with one. I guess I was guilty of being in the mindset that mental health issues are what other people have, not me, and it’s not much to be concerned about.
Now I know that one in four people experience a mental health problem in their lifetime and, already at school age, an estimated three students in a class of thirty have a diagnosable mental health disorder.
Suicide is a highly delicate and divisive subject for many. There is much speculation, accompanied by many myths. Suicide is massively complex and multiple factors usually lie behind a person taking their own life. In many cases, the person may not necessarily want to die, but for the current pain, anguish, problem to end.
Suicidal thoughts are far from uncommon in young people, with an estimate that up to 20% experience thoughts about harming themselves or ending their lives. This ideation can be a passing moment or a phase, or it can become an embedded state of mind. Fears may prevent the individual from saying how they feel and asking for help: I’m weak, I don’t want to draw attention to myself; no-one will take what I say seriously, listen properly or understand how I feel.
You could save a life by just asking someone who appears to be in a low mood whether they are thinking about hurting themselves. A simple gesture of empathic acknowledgement shows that person you care for them.
There may be mood or behaviour changes that could indicate that a young person is dealing with something emotionally hard. However, those experiencing emotional problems may disguise their mood, keeping what’s going on hidden. It is not always apparent, even to those who really know and care for the individual. Look for unusual changes in routine or dialogue, even small ones.
If you detect a young person behaving unusually and you are concerned, ask them directly if they are thinking about taking their life. This shows that you care and are noticing them. Allow them time to respond and listen actively. Let them talk without interruption. Reassure them they can be helped, but don’t try and solve their problems yourself. Seek professional support. And if you are genuinely worried that the person is at risk, stay with them and seek help.
Teaching about mental health and emotional wellbeing is vital for student wellbeing. Students need to learn to recognise their own and others’ emotions and to develop healthy coping strategies. Mental health education provides students with tools to keep themselves healthy and safe, and to support others who are facing challenges. By developing students’ knowledge, understanding, skills, language and confidence, students learn how to seek help for themselves or others.
Teachers need support and training to be able to teach mental health and well-being effectively, with an in-depth focus for those with pastoral responsibilities.
Students also need access to trained counsellors. Seeing a counsellor can create stress in itself and be stigmatising. Careful management of counselling services is important to maintain confidentiality and encourage use. Hotlines and chatlines offer a further avenue for students to voice their worries and be heard and assures anonymity.
Schools should have in place a suicide prevention plan alongside the teaching about mental health and well-being in the curriculum, with and with guidance for when and how to intervene.
By sharing with parents what they are teaching students, there is a common language and understanding about mental health issues.
The Hong Kong government has commissioned at least two studies and reports into youth suicide, each containing multiple observations and many recommendations.
The next logical step is for the government to publish a Youth Suicide Prevention Plan. As students, parents, teachers, charities and health organisations, we need to know what is being planned and what is being implemented and how success will be measured.
I would like the Hong Kong government to commit to producing a Youth Suicide Prevention Plan by the end of 2020, providing clear and measurable outcomes that are reviewed on a regular basis.
I would also like to see investment to increase the number of psychologists and psychiatrists available to support young people to at least international standards. If we encourage young people to seek help, that help needs to be readily available and accessible within a reasonable timescale.
Our government can improve the lives and future prospects for our young people by doing all it can to ensure their safety, prospects and well-being.
Hong Kong needs bottom up as well as top down initiatives, and campaigns have an important role to play in changing the conversation surrounding mental health.
The UK has seen some successes, e.g. the Heads Together campaign. Mental ill health is now more widely discussed in the media and among the general public. I welcome charities and NGOs who are providing grass roots support for our youth in Hong Kong. With a government plan in place, these organisations can better focus their campaigns where they matter most.