The school press release said the girl had good grades, was outgoing and well-liked by teachers and peers, and was a part of the school choir and badminton team.
Young people dying from suicide elicits a deep, deep sense of tragedy like no other. Young people, it seems, should be happy, wide-eyed, curious for the future. But suicides bring to the fore-front a reality that does not match up to our expectations. Hotlines are shared, posts are made on Facebook calling for all to check in with their loved ones, crisis teams are brought into schools to help students process.
And then everything seems to settle again.
I was walking home from work when I saw a large idle crowd, whispered murmurs, police lights, ambulances, and a body tent on the ground. Was there an accident? Did someone get stabbed? I was curious, but I was also tired and went on home. I found out on the news that someone from the building over had jumped to his death — and that was his body on the ground that I had walked past.
The next day, a few old ladies in my apartment building told me not to walk down that path, but instead to take a different route. It was bad luck, they said. But business was as usual — bread shops were still baking, pharmacies were still selling milk formula, gold shops still selling gold — and the street was just as packed.
Life, it seemed, was momentarily paused, where passerbys and onlookers stopped to whisper rumours amongst one another, to satisfy our curiosity, to offer unsolicited life advice to one another “sigh, if you start to think of death, everything will make you want to die!”, to lament unnecessary and untruthful anecdotes to no one in particular “young kids these days don’t have what it takes to deal with life!”.
And then it went right back to business as usual.
I couldn’t stop thinking how the world just kept going, after someone’s life had ended so abruptly. What about the people who were mourning? All we see are comments online, the day-old posts of condolences being buried under 1,000+ new posts, a statistic that gets referenced when the next suicide occurs.
I couldn’t stop thinking how this was one suicide amidst the thousands of people who die by suicide every single day all over the world.
I couldn’t stop thinking about all the other people who are struggling right now, in misery.
I couldn’t stop thinking about all the young people I know who tell me they sit in their room, late at night, with the lights turned off. And they just sit there, because they’re so numb and empty and sad and miserable all at once.
“I think about suicide every single day. I think about how if I jumped off a roof, everything could come to an end. That I could come to an end.”
Each time a school uses our mental health screening app, we receive messages from students who are in need. They share their personal feelings and thoughts, such as, “I think about suicide every single day. I think about how if I jumped off a roof, everything could come to an end. That I could come to an end.”
And this is not a one-off crisis situation that our screening algorithm picks up.
These are everyday students doing their everyday things. The school just happened to ask them how they’re doing. And so they share their everyday thoughts and feelings. And we get a glimpse into the magnitude of the dark reality these kids are living in.
Out of a 100 students who use our tool, there are at least 7 students who would fall into this ‘high risk’ category. This means that, out of an average school of about 1,000 students, there are 70 of them. Extrapolate that, and you’ve got a city-full of students who can’t sleep at night, have zero motivation, find no joy in their day, and operate 100% in zombie-mode, where they are doing everything they need to do as students, but as the classic meme describes, ‘dead inside’.
Now what about the next standard deviation over? How many are there? What about students who fall under the ‘norm’? If 30% of Hong Kong teens are consistently saying they feel depressed, down, and disinterested in things that normally would bring them pleasure — aka. meeting all the checkmarks for a DSM-V diagnosis, then what does it even mean to be ‘normal’ anymore?
Our mental health screening results are alarming.
Not only in the numbers, but also the fact that some of the students who share the darkest kinds of thoughts are the ones who are seemingly most perfect on the outside. And that is evident time and time again in how suicides are reported.
Nobody saw it coming.
But this is just one school that used our mental health screening tool that day. As a result, kids were “uncovered”, followed up with, connected with support, finally were able to share their burden with a caring adult and, hopefully, build a trusting relationship with.
But the morbid reality is that these were still the same kids yesterday, and the week before.
And these very kids exist in every single school, every single day.
And what are we doing about that?
Humans are naturally reactionary. We send crisis teams into schools after a suicide occurs. We put together risk assessment teams after a mental health screening takes place. We follow up, we slot kids into the right support streams, and we settle back into the rhythm.
I have been grappling with this — arguing with myself, trying to convince myself that this is the impact I’m making! I’m helping these struggling kids get the help that they need! But for how long have these very teens been sitting in their rooms with the lights off? And does their struggles end once they’ve been “uncovered” and herded off to the counsellor’s office? So whilst I stand behind early identification, de-stigmatisation, and bringing support to the kids who need it — what’s been constantly on my mind is this: What is lacking? What do we need? Is it more resilience and growth-mindsets, as academics tout? Is it less academic pressure, as many parents push for? Is it better parenting, as many schools wish for? Is it more mental health professionals, as mental health professionals lament? What is lacking? What is the solution? And more importantly, what do these young people want and need?
If you wonder what keeps me up at night, well, there you go.